I do not love him, but I wish I could. We are standing in my bedroom arguing about Bosnia. Two minutes ago, we were talking about mosquitoes. Charles is in his underwear, which is all he wears at night, and his body is covered in angry red sores. It's Christians killing Muslims, I say, showing him a book I'm reading about the Balkans. You don't have any idea what it's about, he shouts, but maybe if you would read that book you'd understand they're killing Catholics, too. I am reading it, I say, it's a new Crusade, the same old hatreds playing out all over again. Charles pulls at his dark hair. I itch, he groans, his voice breaking. Don't scratch, I tell him, if you scratch they'll get infected.
Three weeks earlier, on a morning flight to Orly, Charles told me to read Le Figaro instead of Libération. The latter, he said gravely, was nothing but Communist propaganda. I followed his advice, although I preferred the look of Libération, which I knew my parents would choose if they were French, or if, by some chance, they spoke the language. Look, he said, pointing to a headline about a mob setting fire to a Turkish hotel where the translator of a book that had been condemned as heretical was a guest. Thirty-seven people dead because of a novel! It just goes to show, Charles said, laughing and wagging a finger at me. Goes to show what? I asked. You know what, he chided.
I chose not to argue because we'd been arguing off and on since I'd first come to stay with his family, and it was growing tiresome. How could I not be Catholic? Because my family is not, I said. How could I dream in French when I did not even speak it very well? The unconscious mind is mysterious. How is it possible that people over forty could still feel sexual desire—their bodies are so . . .? I don't know, I said, but the history of humanity, the preponderance of art and literature, suggests they do, right up until death. I wasn't trying to be antagonistic, I just disagreed with everything Charles believed, and I desired him the more for it. This is still possible at seventeen.
Don't you have something for this? Any . . . ointment? Charles asks, fingering his sores, which appeared all at once as we were walking home from the park, having scrambled out of the ravine after getting a fright. He gingerly touches the spots, as if they might be contagious or about to burst into flame. Where did he learn the word ointment? Has he looked it up just now, while I was out of the room? In France we spoke only French, but here we switch constantly between our two languages, since it turns out his English is far worse than my French. I'll ask my mother, I say, and go downstairs.
Once Charles was finished with his exams, his parents sent us off on a series of small holidays: a weekend with cousins in the Pyrenees, a few days at Collioure, some nights in Paris with his grandparents before our departure. The grandfather was away—I never learned where—and we would be under the notional supervision of the grandmother, Suzanne, whom I had met a month earlier when she came to Toulouse for her granddaughter's profession de foi. It was unclear whether this was a sort of First Communion or rebaptism. All the finer details—specific meanings of things, plans for coming days, the nuances of social gatherings—were always slightly blurred.
Suzanne's apartment on the rue Saint–Benoît was halfway between Les Deux Magots and the Seine, on the top floor of a Haussmann building, so we had to hike our suitcases up five flights of stairs. I had never been in a home in which every wall, except those in the kitchen and bathroom, was covered with bookshelves. My own house has books in one room, shelves across two walls, and even this is unusual among my friends. Ours is the literate family, but we are lumpen ignoramuses in comparison to Charles's kin. His grandfather is a professor of political theory, and Suzanne a critic and writer, although she publishes under a pseudonym that no one would reveal to me. During those days in her apartment, I scanned the spines on the shelves, thinking I might deduce which were hers. Perhaps there would be a concentration of one name or multiple editions of a single title, a congregation of bindings particularly well cared for, but there were so many works that met all of these criteria: collections of Colette and Duras and Sarraute, of Bataille and de Beauvoir and Céline, all exquisitely intact. In any case, who was to say whether Suzanne published as a man or a woman? She was deep-voiced and barrel-chested, fussing and clucking like a large chicken in her ankle-length navy skirts as she drew her fingertips along my jaw and cooed, Si gentil.
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