by Maude Veilleux
Mathilde pulled out a chair. In the centre of the table, a message lay among the dirty dishes. Hi Mathilde darling, come meet me for lunch. I love you. A note, left there by Jeanne a few weeks before she’d gone. Mathilde felt her chest tighten. Maybe her heart was breaking. The days passed by unnoticed. A gloom woke her in the morning and enveloped her at night. Sadness caught up with her in each corner of the apartment.
There was a knock at the door. Mathilde opened it and plastered on a smile. Marion, the neighbour, was standing outside.
“Hello Mathilde. Are you alone?”
“Yes, I’m alone.”
“Ah, okay. Well, I just stopped by the bakery. I bought some pastries. I’ve got a bunch. Would you like to share them?”
Mathilde motioned for her to come in. She ran to go change, pulling off her nightgown and tugging on a black bra, a pair of jeans lying on the floor, and a white blouse. Braiding her hair low on her neck, she headed towards the kitchen, filled the kettle with water, and joined Marion who had taken a seat out on the balcony.
“Here, have a smoke,” the Frenchwoman offered, taking out a packet of cigarettes.
“Ah. No, thanks. I’m trying to quit.”
Two cigarettes a week, max.
“Is it working?”
“So, Jeanne’s gone. The big trip out West. Thomas told me about it. You didn’t want to go? Eh, I get it. Four days in that old car… I’d rather die. And it must be horrible out there. Can you imagine? Nothing but the cold, barking dogs, and tundra. How awful.”
“Yeah, maybe. Actually, I don’t know. Jeanne seems to like it.”
Mathilde didn’t have an opinion. The awkwardness was palpable. Marion obviously hadn’t come to talk about Jeanne leaving over breakfast; she was hoping to run into Thomas. The kettle whistled. Mathilde got up and ran to the kitchen. She put three spoonfuls of oolong in a camel-shaped teapot, a gift, and poured in the hot water. On a Notre-Dame Basilica tray that had belonged to her grandmother she arranged the teapot, two cups, and the plate of croissants. She crossed the apartment, eyes on the liquid spilling from the animal’s mouth.
She weighed her words at length, then, in an effort to let it out, she blurted:
“I miss her already. It’s as if she’s dead.”
She saw herself, barely an hour earlier, sitting in front of the refrigerator crying over a jar of homemade spaghetti sauce Jeanne had left—sauce that nobody would eat—stricken by the fear of destroying what remained of her lover if she got rid of it. But the idea of leaving it there, waiting for her return and watching it grow mould, bothered her just as much. Traces of Jeanne were piling up all over the house to remind her of the distance between them.
“She won’t be back before fall,” she went on. “Her contract ends in October. It’s a long season.”
She looked down, reached out, and grabbed a croissant, splitting it into three equal parts. She didn’t eat them, just stared. It was still unclear what was driving her to open up to Marion.
“In three years, I never saw one of you without the other. You’ll have to find yourself again. Do things you like. And I’m sure you made the right choice to stay.”
Mathilde nodded. With her index finger, she gathered the croissant crumbs scattered across the table and threw them over the railing. She still hadn’t taken a bite. She stared at the parking lot below. Memories of Jeanne’s departure kept running through her head. How was she going to stay afloat? She loosened a cigarette from the packet sitting among the silverware and smoked it quietly.
“Thomas is coming back in six or seven days. I’ll have some company.”
“He’s not here? I didn’t realize. He didn’t say anything to me.”
“Oh no?” Mathilde asked, feigning surprise. “He’s been in New York since last week.”
Marion looked worried.
“He decided on a whim,” added Mathilde, as if to reassure her.
The empty teacups announced that breakfast was over. Mathilde showed Marion to the door. They kissed each other on the cheek and promised to stay in touch during the week.
Mathilde stood by the door for a long time. She looked at her bed where the cat sat curled up, head under its paws. She went to retrieve it. She slid her fingers through the animal’s silky coat, rubbing the soft skin of its muscles. The little cat purred and, turning, barely opened an eyelid. Mathilde stroked it, caressing its head until the cat seemed awake enough to play. Mathilde arched her back and growled, showing her teeth. She dug her nails into the fabric of the covers. She inched forward and made as if to swipe at the cat’s side. It crouched down and flattened its ears behind its head, its pupils dilated. Mathilde leaped and pretended to bite. The cat skilfully freed itself from her grasp and pounced on the fleshy part of her thumb. A poorly cut claw dug in, and Mathilde winced. They kept up the game for a while, ending up pressed closely together.
Sitting on the toilet, Mathilde stared at the dust that had gathered under the sink. The tea had left her with a full bladder and a vague sense of anxiety. The dirt on the ceramic tiles calmed her fears. Mathilde busied herself by imagining cleaning the nooks and crannies—between the bathtub and the wall, under the heater and behind the trash—but knew nothing would come of it. She would go back to her room, try to read, and return to sit on the toilet, fixing her eyes on the clumps of skin and hair caught by the damp tiles.
In a corner, behind the trash, she noticed an insect. A kind of long, soft worm that was shiny and moved quickly. Mathilde thought about the bug crawling under her feet, slipping between her toes, moving up to her calves and thighs until it found an orifice to lay the eggs it would hatch. She narrowed her eyes and clenched her fingers. And by the time she plucked up the courage to crush the filthy thing with a book, she could no longer find it.
Translation by Arielle Aaronson
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