by Lori Saint-Martin
translated by Peter McCambridge
Ekstasis Editions, 2015
Pascale just dropped by. She spends a whole hour with her mother in the kitchen drinking jasmine tea, then comes with me for a walk in the forest. Catherine stays behind, saying she wants to make that squash soup Pascale enjoys so much (and soup there will be, coincidentally far too much, and Pascale will have to take some home with her, along with a couple of French cheeses, a loaf of homemade bread, and the envelope I’ll slip her). We walk peacefully among the russet-coloured trees and the dogs running wild, talk about shows, ours and other people’s. She’s working on a huge canvas and it’s like groping around in a bonfire, she says: after shutting herself away for two weeks straight, she needs to take a step back. Thanks for just listening without telling me what I should do, Dad, she says. You’re the best. A quick peck on the cheek. She laughs. It’s not often that my Pascale laughs; my heart melts.
I’m nowhere near the best, but being a good to middling father given the one I had would already be something. I never wanted to be a father anyway.
It was Catherine who—twice—forced her big belly on me. I didn’t want to be the ogre standing in the doorway, his shadow looming over the table as the others sit peacefully eating. They lift their heads with a mix of terror and boredom and look daggers at you. Father, Mother, the children: cards shuffled and dealt once and for all, shadow shows to make you laugh or cry.
I refused to play that game. I never wanted children, and I had told Catherine as much. Shit and snot and spit-up, siren wails that pierce the night, tantrums and kicking, sticky little fingerprints all over the glass table. You want to go for a walk and it takes an hour to get everybody ready, then you have three bags to haul around with you. A kid is a dead weight that hangs on tight and wiggles around, three or four kilos that add up to twenty years of responsibility. Someone listening on the other side of the wall every time you want to fuck your wife, someone who asks: what’s that? when all you want to do is read the paper, or who says at the top of their voice in the middle of the restaurant: why is that fat lady so ugly, Daddy? Someone who looks at you too keenly and condemns you as a failure or a monster, who pompously demands justice or silently pumps shit into their veins to punish you for having brought them into the world. Someone you can’t save from a childhood disease or the sky-blue station wagon bearing down on them on a quiet street late one summer evening. Someone who grows up too quickly or refuses to grow up at all, who spits their Pablum and rage right in your face, who refuses to eat or will eat nothing but plain pasta and pickles. How fortunate in my misfortune to have only girls: a boy would have killed me. Either that or I would have kicked him to death. A father, after all, always wears steel-toed boots, literally or metaphorically. It’s a storm, with no calm before or after, the force of circumstance in the prime of life. A boxer who cheats by fighting in a different class, who never stops punching, in love with his own rage. He thinks people hate and respect him, but in fact he’s only hated. And alone.
And yet, my girls, my three jewels. Pascale is tall, hiding behind her fringe of fair hair. She paints passionate, demanding abstracts; she doesn’t sell many, but those who like her work can’t get enough of it. Pascale’s blues, her shadows, are hers alone. She is as fond of blue as I am. She is unsociable like me, she keeps her distance. She smells of cigarettes and mint candies, and is a little mad. She lives alone, can only live alone. Véronique, who became a columnist when she was very young, married an old, important journalist. Bah, international politics, what rot. He’s my age, the bastard, and he’s fucking my daughter. And Sophie, Sophie her twin, Sophie who pops out babies far away, is married to a Swede and lives in Stockholm. Sophie who was always secretly my favourite and to whom, now, I have nothing left to say.
When the boys are older I’ll take them to the forest and show them the owl’s nest and teach them what every breed of dog is called. I’ll make them each a kite that looks like a goldfish. They’ll run about looking back over their shoulders. They’ll fall, let go of the strings, and the kites will fly off and I’ll have to make new ones. But until then they’re digestive tracts in expensive pyjamas.
If it had been up to me, none of them would ever have been born. Pascale’s paintings, Véronique’s columns, Sophie’s two boys: none of it would exist. Who would the old man have fucked then? But that part of my life got away from me. I should have gotten the snip in secret or at least worn condoms, but I can’t stand how they feel. The very thought of sliding one of those things on turns my stomach. Catherine had her way, as women always do. I hated her for it, almost left her over it, but the time for leaving each other passed and now we’re happy together. At least, out walking with Pascale—the madwoman who lives only for her paintings and who’s just stopped me on the forest path to plant a big, noisy kiss on my cheek—walking back with her to a light-filled house, where a good meal and a smiling woman await, I think to myself, yes, we’re happy. If there is a threat to our marriage, it’s not coming from me.
Translation by Peter McCambridge