In Translation Short Story

You Are Bathing In Light

by Chloé Savoie-Bernard

translated by Natalia Hero

from Des femmes savantes

Éditions Triptyque, 2016

I’m sorry, but this is another story about a crazy girl – I know, been there done that, Sylvia Plath has already written those stories and at least had the decency to do what I could never hope to accomplish. When I read her, my darling Sylvia, I felt that we were made of the same flesh, both blonde, both too smart – that’s what my therapist keeps saying, that my intelligence won’t help me heal, that I’ve held my intelligence at arm’s length all my life like a rampart between me and the days, that I need to let it go to get in touch with what I feel. She tells me that repressing my emotions the way I do only makes me want to die, she tells me that obviously when the bell jar cracks and lets out what I’m holding in, my feelings explode, short-circuit, and make me want to end it all. I need to learn to get closer to what I feel – and books, even if they trace the pattern of my feelings, are external objects. I need to close them so I can learn to live. I guess one day you have to stop crying for the dead along with yourself. I guess you need to cry all by yourself. Reading Sylvia cradles me and gives shape to my days, but I won’t turn on the oven and I won’t let the gas slowly fill my lungs. I don’t know if you can survive the violent deaths of the writers you love, but I don’t think I have the strength to repeat history. I have to close the books. Leave literature altogether.

And anyway I don’t even have children to serve hot milk and cookies to while I kill myself. Sorry, I’m not Nelly Arcan, I won’t be hanging myself in my Plateau apartment, I actually live with my parents deep in the Angus Shops, where all the houses are the same, red brick and cheap kitchens. And from there, I make the trip to the hospital for my therapy sessions, where a whole bunch of Nellys and Sylvias are crammed together, some blonde like us, but also other girls and boys that aren’t lucky enough to look even a little bit like famous writers who killed themselves. Whereas I have the cottony hair and Aryan eyes of the two mothers that breastfeed me arsenic, that put nails in my diapers when they change me. I’m like them, dying is my obsession, dying is the precious stone I rub in my pocket when things go wrong. Yes, I’ve recognized myself in the words of Sylvia and Nelly, but I’ve had enough: let’s turn the page, change the story. Suicide has fallen out of fashion, and I can feel the winds changing. I feel delicate hands lifting the cover that’s enclosed on my heart to let it breathe a little. I try to risk it all, I try my hand at dissociation, I look my two Gorgons in the eyes, my darlings Sylvia and Nelly, I fix my gaze on them and I burn myself hoping that eventually I’ll become immune. I don’t care if I’m charred, if it means that once and for all I’ll be done with them. Soon I’ll read something else, I’ll read historical novels, I’ll read some chick lit, and at the end of the story, the girl will fuck a guy who isn’t perfect but who really loves her, probably a Videotron technician, and I’ll sigh with relief. Chick lit authors never kill themselves – it’ll be a relief. I can’t wait to start dreaming of my Prince Charming and stop dreaming of dying.

To avoid ending up like Sylvia and Nelly, I heal myself three times a week with visits to the therapist; yes, I’m crazy, but maybe one day I won’t be, that’s my foolish wish.

I would have liked for my mothers to help me instead of hurt me. It’s just that, to be sure that I don’t get lost along the way, they’ve placed a trail of little pebbles to lead me to the abyss – but what do you want from me, I’m crazy, I want to break this curse, I want to live, so I go to Rivière-des-Prairies, even if it’s a trek. First, I walk fifteen minutes to catch the 139 that goes up Pie-IX to Henribou, then from Henribou I take the 48 Perras and once I get on, I have another half-hour bus ride to stare out the window at all the ugliness of Montréal-Nord. And it isn’t by looking at all that gloom and the bankrupt-looking shops that I find the will to belong in the outside world. It isn’t by looking out the bus window that I find the will to live, period. Every time I get on, I put my hands on the edge of my seat, I grip it, because I’m taken with the idea of opening the window, breathing in the city air one last time, and answering my mothers’ call by throwing myself from the moving vehicle, praying that a car crushes my body. I imagine my body crushed into a pulp and I feel joy; but since above all I want to be in charge of myself, I want to be my own mother, I dig my nails into the blue vinyl and I try to think of something else, fix my attention on anything but the paths paved by two women who killed themselves.

And so, my hands clasped to my seat, I look at the herds of little blondes who get on the bus at Henribou and sit so close to me, little blondes and tall brunettes too, but they’re not Nelly or Sylvia’s daughters, you can tell, you can feel it. For one thing, they’re in groups and they squawk and laugh, of course, but there’s something else – I can fake laugh too, I’m not dumb, you just breathe and contract your lip muscles, anyone can do that. It’s something beyond the laughs, beyond the communion with their phones that they check every twenty seconds as if to say: look, look at me having a life, how they all want to talk to me, communicate with me, look, look how I’m in demand, look how much I’m wanted. I’m talking about something else, something else you can read in their posture, the way they pull they shoulder blades back and straighten their bodies like they’re being called to receive the light, like it’s natural to be entitled to that light in the dreariness of Montréal-Nord, like it isn’t indecent, like it isn’t an unspeakable violence against me. I clash with this décor without even doing anything, just by looking out the window, then by staring at them, because they’re my salvation, my talismans, my death preventers. Their cackles almost cover up Nelly and Sylvia’s voices; I still hear them, but they’re muffled, as I observe the little blondes and the tall brunettes and ask myself Why them and not me, why them and not me, with their shoulders back and a phone full of funny texts from friends. I don’t say anything, I look at them and I know that to anyone else, probably even to them, I look like I’m part of the gang, I look like I go to the same bars and show the bouncer an ID I stole from my sister or cousin, take shots of Sour Puss that make me puke in the bathroom fifteen minutes after I swallow them, me too, I look like I’m thinking of the upcoming stats test, or history, or French, or my chem lab, or the clothes on sale at Urban Outfitters, I look like them, strong and light. No one can tell that I have to give everything to keep from dying.

Nothing distinguishes me from them at first glance, if you aren’t looking for it, if you don’t scratch the surface. Me too, just like them, I have an iPod that plays the same songs, khaki polish on my nails and a nice vintage parka, me too, me too, me too, and soon, maybe, I’ll get the death wish out of my DNA, I’ll pry it out with a crowbar, I’ll get rid of every last bit of Sylvia and Nelly that flows in my veins, I’ll leave it to others, this darkness that envelops me, their beloved darkness.

When I close my eyes, I imagine myself no longer being Nelly and Sylvia’s daughter, I renounce my mothers just as they will renounce me when I start acting like all these girls my age on the bus. I hope that they put an end to this curse, that they disown me once and for all after I’ve stayed on the 48 Perras a stop further than the one I usually get off at. These girls all go to CEGEP just one stop past the hospital – a five-minute walk from the RDP hospital – whereas I get off first, at this stop where there’s nothing but the home of my two mothers and the other crazies. Every time I have to ring the bell to let the driver know I’m getting off there, the girls all look at me, as though I’ve just said, Look at me, I’m not like you, I’m an imposter, go on, look at me. And it’s always the same: I try to focus on something else, on telling myself, Breathe, Coralie, everything is white, there is only white, there is nothing but white. And I get up from my seat, I grab my bag, I try to pretend no one’s staring at me, that they’re nobody. I get off the bus, I cross the parking lot to get to my therapy appointment, I try to forget everything around me, to whisper to myself that everything is white. I tell myself sweet things, that I’m no one’s daughter, that I’ll be the daughter of Whoever I like. I tell myself, There is nothing in your way, Coralie, you are nowhere, there is only white, so pull your shoulders back, there is nothing but light. You are bathing in light, Coralie.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Translation by Natalia Hero first published in issue 31 of carte blanche