Don’t just stand there in the doorway. Come in! I told Suzanne you could visit because I’d like to talk to you about something. Please, have a seat! Doesn’t it seem like ages since we sat down together, face to face? Why don’t you take your coat off and stay a while? What’s wrong? You don’t seem especially overjoyed to see me. I guess I shouldn’t have believed Suzanne? You complained that I abandoned you, but only so the family would show you pity. So what’s the problem here? Are you upset at me for not greeting you with Maryse in my arms? Seriously, what do you expect? That I’ve forgotten the past and from now on I’ll come home as often as I used to? Time will never repair the damage we’ve done to each other. When, abruptly, I cut off all communication with you five years ago, it wasn’t to play at being Miss Independent. No, the hatred I’d built up for you was oozing from my every pore. But don’t worry! I invited you here so I can talk to you about Maryse and me, not to hurt you.
I haven’t slept in three days. They took her from me this morning, and I have to admit it was a relief. I couldn’t carry on constantly leaning over her crib to make sure she was still breathing. Four hours from now, they’ll bring her back so I can feed her. Thinking of her and nothing but makes me shudder. Every time I pick her up, I’m afraid I’ll break her. When I think that it won’t be long before I’m home alone with her, I want to die. Yet if you only knew how much I wanted a baby. I never thought I would need to get used to having her around. Now that I’ve given birth to her, it’s like I’ve forgotten she ever lived inside me.
And yet I’d hoped that Maryse would help transform me. I thought that, by being so close to an innocent, fragile creature of my own, I’d grow strong and serene. But everything’s happened so differently than I’d imagined. Starting with labor. All I remember about that long-awaited moment is the certainty I’d had an amputation when Maryse slipped out of me. As if in granting her the right to breathe, I was condemning myself to feeling incomplete again. From the moment Maryse’s life began, I’ve been afraid of no longer being able to bear my own. And yet I don’t want the history Maryse and I have begun writing together to compare in any way to the one you and I wrote.
During the months I spent readying her room, I was preoccupied by one simple wish: to surround her with living beings so she would never doubt that she belonged to this world. I didn’t want Maryse to waste her childhood in a miniature universe of wood or plastic. The furniture and everything else in the house will belong to her. She won’t have to treat any of it like fragile, carefully arranged toys. She’ll sleep in the largest room in the house so she’ll never feel claustrophobic.
Unfortunately, the décor I’ve planned for her would make you uncomfortable. Surrounded by your worst demons, you’d look at nothing but your feet. Imagine three walls papered with children’s drawings, in which lichens, reindeer, and seals gaze at cacti, lizards, and jackals. In which orange trees, giraffes, and panthers stand next to beech trees, rabbits, and squirrels. Imagine an immense window, across from which I’ve set up a cage full of birds, surrounded by ivy and philodendron. And Maryse’s bed is right in the center of the room. Across from the bed, there’s a chest of drawers on which I’ve placed an aquarium full of goldfish. So she can feel at ease among so many strangers, Maryse will need me to speak softly to her as I cradle her in my arms. Now do you understand why it’s so important for me to feel at peace again?
Whenever I was born, you, too, must have felt as if you’d lost something. But what effort did you make to love me and teach me how to live? Doesn’t the fact that, in the end, I’m so much like you bring tears to your eyes? I, for one, would never tolerate Maryse’s childhood leaving her feeling debilitated. But you were like a sleepwalker who never worried about anything. You never even made an effort to hang onto the gifts that life gave you. Your only ambition was to sleep. It never occurred to you to consider anyone but yourself. It never crossed your mind that your children might feel lost without you. And now look at us. Are you proud of yourself? The only thing you see in others is your own fear.
Never will Maryse hear a word about you or my childhood. Just between us, that time was so empty that it seemed as if my youth lasted an eternity. I can’t remember ever seeing you sitting in the portico in a yellow or blue dress, your face in the sun. No more do I remember hearing you laugh when the first snowflakes began to fall. You hung thick, drab curtains over every window in the house. The doors and windows were bolted shut, no matter the season. The noise and bustle from the street never reached us. Year round, the house stank of camphor, milk of magnesia, and rubbing alcohol.
I was bursting with life. Why would you want to stifle that? At least you could have let me play while you languished between the sheets. But no such luck. I had to go back to sleep, huddled against you. Even if I was careful not to move an inch, it woke you when I pricked up my ears to listen to the other children having fun. You wouldn’t even tolerate me looking at the splotches of sunshine on the ceiling. A wakeful child’s breathing disturbed you. Would you have preferred that I be wasted with frailty and disease like you? From one year to the next, I lived with the threat of your imminent death. Yet you’re still kicking. Your body and face haven’t changed: you’re still pitifully thin and infinitely sad.
Life hangs onto you with a vengeance. I’ve come to think that you’ll live forever. The Grim Reaper passes right by you without even noticing because the two of you look so much alike.
Now look at you. You’re still sitting on the arm of the chair. You’re completely tensed up. You haven’t even glanced at me once. The door is closed, and you know no one will come in, so what are you afraid of? You’re not even listening to me. For that past few minutes, I’ve been talking to a statue, just like when I was a kid.
All the same, I’m pleased to see you again. It’s allowed me to realize that we’re a lot less alike than I’d thought. Not anymore, at least. But, oh, how I’ve worried the issue! I’m only thirty, and I think about my remaining years with a great sense of apprehension, because I have to fight a battle every day just to go on living. And now that I know Maryse’s arrival won’t be enough to allow life to take root in me in a definitive way, I feel exhausted. If anything, Maryse has accentuated how empty I am inside. She’s made me realize that I might not have enough breath in me for the both of us. Surprisingly enough, I only recognized as much in the past year.
If Benoît ever imagined Maryse were causing me so much anxiety, he’d never forgive me. I can’t tell anymore if he holds onto me out of love or pity. When I met him, I was still so much like you. For a long time, I counted on him to change me. But when you’re twenty-five, the will to live is no longer transmitted by osmosis. It was no one’s responsibility to fill the void you left in me. No one’s but my own.
I started by watching how Benoît went about the daily task of living. For starters, he never trembled. Whenever he entered stores or movie theaters, he seemed completely at home. Using the subway or an elevator was as natural to him as eating with a knife and fork. When he found himself in the middle of a crowd, he wasn’t averse to simply going with the flow. His only fear was dying without having seen and learned enough. By simply letting him take my hand, I became familiar with the places we visited and won over the people we met. My heart always pounded more quickly than his, and often I was short of breath, but I grit my teeth and trailed after him. More than once I thought, “If only I could breathe through Benoît’s mouth, even just for a minute. I bet I’d feel ten years younger.”
In the early years of our marriage, whenever I found myself at home alone, I could feel you behind me all the time. To chase you away, I opened the doors and windows so I could hear cars rumbling in the streets. Whenever I heard footsteps coming toward the house, I rushed to the window to keep myself from giving in to the temptation to crouch behind a wall, as I’d seen you do so many times. If the woman who lived next door went outside onto her balcony, I went outside, too. I forced myself to talk to her. What in particular I said was neither here nor there. What was important was to keep my voice in shape, to practice the words I’d learned.
All the same, on some days, your influence won out. I only got out of bed a few hours before Benoît came home from work. On edge for the slightest noise, my throat in a vice, I counted the hours between me and nightfall. Unfortunately, year by year those days multiplied. I looked at myself in the mirror five years ago, and I saw you. Now do you understand why I stopped coming over? Look at me. Do you understand? Oh, I’m scaring you! Still, you’re going to have to listen to me till I’ve said my piece. Tomorrow, you’ll still remember a little of what I’ve said, and I hope whatever it is will obsess you to your dying day. Maybe even keep you up at night.
Five years ago, I again became the child you never spoke to or smiled at. Everything scared me, even my own shadow. No one could pull me out of the hole I’d dug for myself. I was no longer capable of loving or hating. Fear and anxiety filled up all the space inside of me. Whenever Benoît stepped into the house, I wanted to hide under the bed. The life force that followed him everywhere upset me. Like the trees, sun, and air, it represented a threat. I found myself wishing more and more frequently that Benoît would find the courage to have me locked up. I dreamed of a white-walled room with a bed and a rocking chair. A windowless room where I wouldn’t see or hear anyone. A room where I would let myself die.
I’d stopped washing. I’d stopped dressing. I’d stopped eating. But Benoît still came home every night. He waited until summer to offer me one last chance. By the seashore, in a house that jutted out over the rocks. I awoke every morning to the sound of waves, their salt in my mouth. I learned to walk and play in the hot sand, to run through the icy water, to rest against a tree at nightfall, and to get a handle on all the sounds and silences of the surrounding area. Over two months’ time, I learned to want to live again.
When I came home, I had the taste of earth in my mouth. My head and hands were no longer shaking. My eyes were the same size as everyone else’s. I no longer seemed like an old woman. When I came home, I possessed a well-loved five year-old’s ability to live. But I was twenty years older than that. No one taught me a woman’s daily routine. If I wanted to sustain the life force growing inside of me, I would have to struggle. Alone. Completely alone. First, I relearned how to walk through the streets without being scared of getting lost, then to talk to people without thinking they would attack me. I learned to sit in a restaurant without feeling like I was being watched, and to answer the phone without my heart beating a mile a minute. I learned everything I would need to teach to Maryse.
But every day, I have to keep your fear from undermining all the knowledge I’ve recently gained. All you have to do is look at this room to understand what I mean. Nothing about it strikes you? Come on! What’s unusual about this room but the one bed? There are only two like this on the whole floor, you know. I had to reserve it months in advance. Does it seem normal that I was terrorized by the thought of sharing a room with someone? Yesterday, while Maryse was asleep, I forced myself to walk down the hall and take a look around. The doors to most of the rooms were open, at least halfway. Snippets of conversation and bursts of laughter came at me from every direction. I envied these radiant women leafing through magazines together, playing cards, or doing each other’s hair. I would have liked to say hello and join them. My mouth was full of words I wanted them to hear. But like always, the fear of facing silence, mine or theirs, even if only for a moment, got the upper hand. No matter where I go, the dead world you confined me to threatens to reappear. When I came back to my room, I automatically closed the door behind me.
Try for a moment to image me sharing my room with someone. Her bed is behind you. The woman sits there polishing her nails. As soon as you come in, she turns on her radio to give us a little privacy. She checks on her baby several times. Her gentle babbling and soft laughter distract us from our conversation, as we judge her to be too happy. You see! Your hand just went instinctively to your throat. Your eyes bugged out so much they hurt. You wonder if this woman might actually exist. How would you even know, since when you arrived, you came directly over to me without taking the slightest glance around the room?
I felt the exact same sense of panic yesterday, trying to imagine that woman in here. Every time I moved, she turned to look at me. After that, I felt as if I were being watched, so the most natural and mindless gestures demanded all my concentration. I was even more awkward taking care of Maryse than I used to be with my dolls.
And this morning, they decided to deprive me of Maryse. In talking to you, I realize that, without her, I run the risk of losing the will to go on fighting. When I think about the way the nurse had to reassure Maryse, I’m ashamed of myself. Compared to that woman, I seem completely devoid of maternal instinct. Will I run away when Maryse cries and clings to me because she broke a toy or hurt herself? Yet I have too many memories of dolls with punched-out eyes who were taken away from me, of scrapes no one ever wiped the blood from, to be unable to summon the courage to console Maryse. Through her, I sincerely hope to regain my lost childhood.
We never went outside and breathed the fresh air together. Even on my first day of school, you refused to go outside to see me off. When I came home, you made me eat alone so you could avoid making eye contact. Didn’t you ever even consider that I might be completely panic-stricken at the simple idea of crossing one street and starting down another? You didn’t hear my heart thumping, night and day. The sound came out through my ears, nose, and mouth. On the playground, I had to hide in the corner so my heart wouldn’t explode. I trembled in front of all the other children. I understood their running and screaming as nothing but a concerted effort to trample all over me. I spent the year opening the wrong doors and walking down the wrong hallways, trying to recall the faces that surrounded me day after day. Was I a robot? A Martian? I understood from the first day of school that I didn’t belong to the same world as the other kids. I didn’t weigh enough or have the right amount of air in my lungs to tread the earth with such self-confidence.
Why are you suddenly shrinking away? You don’t have to quiver like that, it could only be the nurse. You wanted to see Maryse? Well, here she is. You can touch her hand, if you like. No? I’ve never seen you so pale. There’s nothing to be afraid of, I have absolutely no desire to let you hold her. Did you notice how she leaned her head against my chest? My body gives off enough heat to reassure her. Do you understand? I won. Maryse will have thick blood flowing through her veins, hot as the sun and rich with life. The blood of Benoît and people like him. Wait, don’t leave just yet. Let me look at you for a moment longer. I want to erase all the memories I have of you and only remember this one. Whenever I’m scared that I’ll be overwhelmed by anxiety and fear, I’ll remember back when I was thirty, and all you could think about was withdrawing inside yourself and running away. I’ll remember that, by talking to you, I managed to tie up my demons in chains so tightly they could never attack Maryse.
Thanks for coming. I had to see you to be certain that, between you and me, I wasn’t the one who sacrificed my childhood for nothing.
J.T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
Lise Lacasse was born in Lachine, a borough of Montreal, in 1938. She taught French in Quebec before dedicating herself full-time to writing. Author of five novels and two collections of short fiction, she has won numerous awards for her writing, including the Prix Alfred Desrochers for her novel La facilité du jour. She’s currently working on a new collection of short stories.