Violet and the Carpets
I remember it was snowing when I met him. I don’t remember the date or the exact address, but I haven’t forgotten the snow. Memory is so trite: it retains only the details that make for a good story.
I remember the party. I don’t remember the host. I remember their parents were spending the weekend out of town. I don’t remember where. I remember the sofa we all fought over. I don’t remember the rest of the house. I remember it was late. I don’t remember how much I’d had to drink. I remember that the food quickly disappeared. I don’t remember what he was wearing. I remember being annoyed when I discovered a red wine stain on my new blouse. I don’t remember if I managed to get it out. I remember we looked at each other several times. I don’t remember who spoke first. I remember he had withdrawn to a corner and smiled the whole time. I don’t remember if I thought that was a contradiction. I remember his straight black hair. I don’t remember how I wore mine. I remember he was the only foreigner. I don’t remember who invited him to the party. I remember that at that point in my youth foreign men always seemed more interesting to me. I don’t remember how long this naivete lasted.
Yoshie had come to study in Paris. He said he loved languages, although he spoke approximately one and a half. He had an almost desperate desire to travel, to visit the most far-flung places possible. Just as I did, I guess. Now that I think about it, our idea of traveling resembled an escape plan. He gave the impression that he was testing out his identity, like someone constantly trying on clothes to see if they fit. When he arrived in the city he had a romanticized idea of the Sorbonne, as does everyone who hasn’t studied there.
To be fair, the atmosphere was starting to become interesting. A lot of us had earnest fantasies of change. That’s to say, ’68 was still a few years off. Those were very different times, it seemed that everything was about to happen. Libération didn’t even exist! What we read, as a kind of alternative bible, was L’Humanité. My friends and I felt so important, so sure of ourselves as we repeated those pro-Soviet slogans.
The point is that I met Yoshie at a student party. Parties nowadays just seem like parties, I never know how to explain this to my grandchildren. In those days, having fun was something of an act of defiance toward authority. A political response. I suspect this was partly a moral justification, because we wanted to make our simple desire to enjoy ourselves seem more worthy. Or maybe we could only do it like that, because we were so repressed we needed lofty excuses for doing what every young person wants to do. But it was also partly a generational truth. Pleasure didn’t come easily, we had to earn it. I think of that whenever I see my granddaughter, Colette, who is so clued in about all the pleasures in life, and yet somehow so conservative. Honestly, I understand less and less what direction we’re headed in.
Someone introduced us, I’ve forgotten who, and we struck up a conversation. We talked and we didn’t talk. We told each other very little and thought we’d understood a lot. That night, I don’t know why, I felt particularly awkward. It wasn’t just how much I’d drunk. It was a different, rather pleasant giddiness.
To begin with, at least, there was nothing remarkable about our conversation. There was, how can I put it, an acceptance that was wordless. Or rather, beneath the words, which in his case were peppered with small, amusing grammatical mistakes. It was as if we had too much to say to each other, and yet there was no need to say anything. He gave the impression of being a shy young man. This of course hopelessly attracted me. Because I, as a rule so haughty with men, had to flirt a lot more than usual.
We danced for quite a while, he better than I. That’s often the case with timid men. They either don’t dance at all, and hate to be asked, or they end up out-dancing everyone. Yoshie couldn’t stop moving. He glided around with amazing agility, dodging people on the floor. Some were stretched out on the rug just to take a breather, others the better to drink in comfort, and still others for neither of those reasons. A little tipsy myself, I think, I asked what he had been drinking to give him so much energy. I remember his reply very clearly: nothing. We must remedy that! I laughed. What an idiot. He laughed a lot. What a sweetie, and what an idiot.
I also remember that Yoshie didn’t press up against me at all. He avoided any contact below the waist. He danced with me almost diagonally, forcing me to draw him to me rather than keep him at a distance. I was mystified by this degree of formality. And it was also a challenge. For a moment I was afraid he didn’t find me attractive. Or maybe that he didn’t find women attractive. But I knew that wasn’t the case because of the way he looked at me. I did everything I could to get him to talk. As soon as there was room on the sofa, I quickly sat down, lightly patting the space next to me. He came over obediently. That was my first triumph of the evening.
It turned out he was studying economics. Frankly, that was a turnoff. I told him about my history classes. He explained that he would have loved to study humanities, above all linguistics. Still a little disappointed, I said I was sorry he had given up his vocation for something so dull. Yoshie replied that in fact the two worlds had more in common than they might appear to. That there were many similarities between a country’s language and its systems of production. Both had their boom-and-bust cycles. Both safeguarded a heritage, administered their wealth, and negotiated over foreign assets.
This was the first time he had spoken to me for longer than thirty seconds, and although the subject wasn’t what you’d call romantic, something about his opinions and the passion with which he defended them captivated me. As if changing the subject had transformed him into a different person. Or as if he could be more himself when discussing more impersonal matters.
Besides (he added, finally looking me straight in the eye as he articulated his entire sentence in the present tense), if I do not study exactly that, exactly here, maybe I never meet you.
As there wasn’t so much as a slice of bread left, and both of us were ravenous, I suggested we go out and get something to eat. My parents knew I wouldn’t be home before dawn. Whenever I went to a party at somebody’s house, they preferred me to simply stay out until I could safely catch the first metro. This precautionary measure worked in my favor.
It had stopped snowing. The street looked beautiful, all blanketed in white. Yes, it was cold. But it was the sort of cold that gives you a feeling of euphoria, makes you want to break into a run. It was a weekend, so there were still a few revelers about. Ah yes, now I remember. We were somewhere in the Marais. That was before the alterations that Malraux brought in, I think. The neighborhood was nothing like it is now, and it had a kind of proletarian charm. Proletarian charm! How I hated expressions like that when I was young.
We walked for a while, until we saw one of those shops that are open all hours. We bought a baguette, some cheese, and the cheapest bottle of wine we could find. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly a grand cru. We asked them to open it for us, and then Yoshie jammed the cork back in.
When we met, Yoshie didn’t have much money, but he had a lot of imagination about how to spend it. I, too, was in a different situation from the one I’m in now. And my parents, with good reason I suppose, gave me a monthly allowance that covered only my basic transportation costs around Paris. That helped me to appreciate the smallest things with a special intensity. Occasionally, I find myself missing that way of life, then I’m ashamed to feel like that and I tell myself I deserve to lose everything all at once.
Yoshie insisted on paying. As was usual with us girls back then, I was happy to let him do so. I was always struck by the way Yoshie didn’t hand over money directly, until I got used to it, or maybe until he stopped doing it. He would never put the note into a shop assistant’s hand. He avoided physical contact, and at the same time seemed anxious lest he be considered impolite. You could say he moved in an ambiguous zone between fear and respect. He was the same with me. There was a knot, a desire, and a resistance, which I found exciting, apparently. I’m too old now for such affectation.
Carrying our booty in a plastic bag, we searched for a bench to sit on. We huddled close together. This time we had a good excuse. This must sound odd, but I remember feeling that the cold was keeping us warm. Yoshie broke the baguette in two almost without squeezing it. We ate in silence, grinning at each other with delicious awkwardness. I tried to chew very carefully. Cheese can be tricky. Once I had finished, I checked the state of my teeth in my compact mirror, and reapplied my lipstick. In the end, he drank with me. Sharing that bottle was my second triumph of the evening. When it was my turn to take another swig, I did my best to leave a noticeable smudge of lipstick on the glass.
While we were passing the wine between us, we gazed up at the stars. In fact there were very few, because the sky was still quite overcast. Each time we spotted one, we cheered.
You do see? said Yoshie, testing the limits of grammar. Sky also economizing tonight.
As ever, when I didn’t know what to say, I lit a Gauloise to make myself seem interesting. Then he (who still didn’t smoke, but who was about to start because of me) took some paper napkins out of his pocket. With lightning speed, he folded and twisted them, producing an origami flower. Then he asked for my box of matches, and burned the edges of the flower with great delicacy, blowing very softly so that the flame wouldn’t spread. When he was satisfied with the flower’s appearance, he offered it to me, extending his arm in an exaggerated fashion, as if our bodies were a long way apart. I sat gazing at it. It was a kind of carnation smoldering in the night.
Yoshie spoke his bad French very well. As our relationship deepened, I became addicted to his way of saying my name: Vio-ré. Whenever he couldn’t pronounce a name, he’d blame it on the katakana. I didn’t have the faintest idea what katakana was. But those mispronunciations had an unintended seductive effect on me. They made me listen more closely to him than I had done with anyone else before. He faltered and stammered, concentrating so hard on each sentence that I had the impression I was about to hear a revelation. And although that was rarely the case, I was mesmerized in advance.
When it came to intonation, Yoshie had a different sensibility. Whereas the rest of us focused on vocabulary, he was attuned to other properties of words. He would be shocked for no apparent reason, or would take offense at certain responses that sounded normal to us. He used to say that we French are too emphatic when expressing our opinions, and that our self-assurance intimidated him. It isn’t self-assurance, I would tell him. It’s petulance.
I regarded these sensitivities – how naive I was – as a sign of sublime spirituality. Afterward, I got to know him better.
Naturally, we had misunderstandings in reverse. Often I thought I could detect a disparity between what he was saying to me and how he was saying it, as if there were some dubbing issue. He reminded me of an actor reading a text without completely understanding it. Sometimes he would say something sweet to me and it would sound authoritarian. Or he would make an everyday remark in a tone that seemed to me like astonishment. Or he would try to insult someone, and the other person would interpret it as a question.
When he wasn’t sure of how to say something, or got fed up with searching for the correct way to say it, he would keep quiet and smile. Those silences won me over. There’s nothing less sexy than a man’s amorous declarations. His words can (and usually do) leave you dissatisfied. But a silence never disappoints.
If I remember correctly, Yoshie had been in Paris for a year when we met. Possibly two. As soon as he was introduced to someone, he would apologize for his French, which was a lot better than he made out. He boasted that he had learned from French literature, cinema, and music. I must say he had every reason to be proud. It seemed unbelievable he had never studied the language before coming here. That was partly why I fell in love with him.
Every day, every hour, almost whenever he opened his mouth, the poor man was tormented by prepositions. Those spots of language that drive foreigners crazy. He didn’t find verb tenses any easier. In the beginning, he would thank people in the past tense. At the tobacconist’s, for example, before he left he would say, Thank you very much for having sold me cigarettes. Or if he asked directions from a passerby, Thank you for having been so kind.
He had a fixation with infinitives. For him they were the perfect, the most universal expression of the verb. He was confused by our past and future tenses. He couldn’t understand why time had to be divided up so strictly. He saw this, I don’t know, as a philosophical fallacy. Apparently in his language the past is indivisible, continuous, with only one form. They don’t separate it into imperfect, pluperfect, and all those things that I regarded as natural. And which, all of a sudden when I tried to explain them to him, I, too, found nonsensical.
When we started going out together, I asked him to teach me Japanese.
It didn’t work, as two young lovers can’t study together without other things distracting them. I gave it a try until the obstacles defeated me. Also my inertia, I guess, because his French improved by leaps and bounds. I’d like to think that those long, passionate love letters we wrote each other helped a bit.
Although his spelling was atrocious (more or less like that of any young French person nowadays), you could say that his ear didn’t deceive him. I realized he was continually searching for familiar sounds in a strange alphabet, inventing a kind of frontier phonetics. Over time, I became used to his way of articulating the most common words. When someone pronounced them correctly, to me they sounded predictable and bland.
What I most enjoyed was when our everyday exchanges became unintentionally tender. As I was leaving his attic I would say, I’m going, my love. And, instead of saying goodbye, he would answer, I’m staying, my love. By way of those delightful slip-ups, I tried to imagine what his own language was like. Rather than speak it myself, I wanted to puzzle it out through him. I gradually discovered that you can learn a language thanks to the mistakes its speakers make in your own. As in love, our mistakes say more about us than our successes.
In contrast to all these difficulties, Yoshie admired the syntactic freedom of the French language. At first he found it chaotic, uncontrollable. Later on, inspiring, revolutionary. He was convinced this somehow influenced French history. The idea never even occurred to me. I remember how surprised he was by the flexibility of our adjectives. He would always put them before the noun, until I pointed out how ridiculously poetic that sounded. What’s ridiculous about sounding poetic? he would argue.
The first few months of our relationship were the best, precisely when we were getting to know each other. That’s what I always tell my granddaughter, only she won’t listen. Why such a hurry to be together all the time, when the most interesting part is not knowing the other person? I found Yoshie’s polite gestures seductive. Fool that I was, I attributed them to his appreciation of me. His affable way of saying yes was so pleasing.
It took me a while to understand that, despite his courteousness, a yes didn’t have the same meaning for him as it did for me. He would say yes in order not to say no. Then I began to feel terribly insecure, to doubt everything we said to each other. Does he agree or is he just going along with me? Does he really want what he says he wants? And more importantly, does he love me or doesn’t he love me? Yes or no?
When the first tensions arose between us, we were terrified. We’d never had the slightest disagreement, so neither of us knew how to react. It even occurred to me that this was the end. My mistake. That was the true beginning. Without masks or fantasies. Him and me. A couple. Two idiots. Love. I confess that, at the outset, I refused to believe our clashes were real.
I preferred to blame them on some linguistic misunderstanding. On an ideal level, I was convinced that if we had shared a mother tongue, we’d have agreed about everything. I responded in a similar way to his lack of sincerity. Every time I caught him telling a lie, I reassured myself by thinking that we had very different notions of yes and no. In France, where we’re constantly saying no and contradicting our neighbor, this is instantly noticeable. To communicate with someone, we need to disagree.
Disagree and protest. Yoshie would often say to me that for the French, protesting was a form of happiness. Since to him such an attitude was unthinkable, he would disagree with me by partially concurring. That confused me, or worse still, it allowed me to understand what I wanted to understand. He criticized me for always giving such categorical responses. For being unable to express my refusals more tactfully. This lack of ambiguity offended him, you might say.
As he perfected his use of the language, Yoshie started to regret that what he gained on the one hand he lost on the other. His focus on the conversation, which he was now fully able to comprehend, distracted him from the tone, the gaze, the voice. According to Yoshie, who tended to summarize every problem with an economic metaphor, his accumulation of linguistic capital was impoverishing his acquisition of nonverbal assets. The better he spoke my language, the more disagreements we had. Sometimes, in the midst of one of our arguments, he would say to me sadly, I understand you more if I understand less.
Artwork © Furuya Korin / RawPixel Ltd