Prague by Madue Veilleux [Excerpt]
I wanted to learn how to live alone. I’d never done it. I’d always taken elaborate care to avoid solitude. I’d been single for two months over ten years. Almost never slept alone. I’d built relationships just to have someone, and I’d had sex for the same reason.
At that point, I thought I had to choose between my marriage and my novel. I had to totally commit to one or the other. The novel demanded I go further, be alone, always more alone. And I had nothing else, only writing could still save my skin. If I kept trying to write the book without making any compromises in my life, the story would fall flat. Another banal record of heartbreak. Why did I believe so strongly that I needed to write? Why was it so important? Because it was saving me. That verb again. It was important because it took over everything. Because it forced me to ruin myself for a better story. Maybe that was cheating. But I was the one making the rules. I was the queen here in the country of my novel.
I told Guillaume I needed to be alone. A first step. We agreed on a few days. He went to his parents’ place. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to move, to find an empty room, live there with nothing but a mattress on the floor, a rug, my computer, headphones and a bookshelf. I’d leave him everything else. I saw it as a test. I would break myself into pieces. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, wouldn’t be able to face myself. A disaster. I scoured apartment listings. I looked for white walls. A clean bathtub. I talked it over with Guillaume. We cried in each other’s arms. It was the first time we’d touched in weeks. I couldn’t believe we’d reached this point.
The book was going to be about an open marriage, but it was turning into something else. It ended up being about I don’t know quite what anymore. About the torment of no longer loving someone who’d saved me, who could make me happy, who loved me, whom I loved. About no longer loving that person and loving someone else, someone imperfect, a stranger. No longer loving the man I wanted to love forever. Or dare I write it: no longer loving the man I had wanted to love forever.
Guillaume in Paris, 2012. He’d left at the beginning of October. The first, I think. He’d walked me to the bus stop. I had to work, hadn’t managed to get the day off. I looked at him standing at the corner, knowing the days ahead would be hard. I came home that night to an empty apartment.
A few days earlier I’d written: “In six days, you’ll be on a plane. I’ll close the door behind you, set up a space to write and finally try to finish my novel. I’ll tie my hands to the keyboard, chain my body to the chair. I’ll only get up to attend to basic functions. I’ll hope to reach a state of vertigo, total isolation, and I’ll be able to let the idea flow free. I will live and breathe the book.” I’d written those lines in the future, likely already knowing that things wouldn’t go that way. I did write a lot those months we were apart, but mostly I’d wandered, written about longing, neglected my novel.
“If it weren’t for the cat, I’d have already gone to my mother’s. Even though the cat wakes me up at night with her extra claw clacking on the floor, her obsession with nudging things off my desk. I’m surprised at myself for being mean to her. I love that little cat. She looks after me. You’re one of the few who know I can’t sleep with the lights off, can’t close the bedroom door. Without you here, the room seems to go on forever. It’s a kind of inverse claustrophobia, where the space keeps expanding and I get lost.”
I’d gotten through the months without him, my friends there to hold me up.
He showed up at the house around twenty to six. He rang the bell. I buzzed him in. He came upstairs, probably in the elevator, and knocked. I opened the door. I looked at him. I sat on the bench to give him time to take off his shoes. He said: I won’t stay long.
We went into the office. I offered him a beer. He said no. He got up to go to the bathroom. I finished writing an email while he was gone. He came back, petted the cat. She liked him, had never bitten him. I took it as a sign. I trusted her instincts, could rely on them. He came over and sat next to me, and while he looked for music on the computer I unbuckled his belt, unzipped his pants.
I put my shirt back on and cuddled in close to him. I said: you let me get close to you because you weren’t afraid I’d get attached, because I’m married. But now, if I leave my husband, are you going to pull away? I’m afraid of not seeing you anymore. I’m being as honest as I can be. I know you don’t want a relationship. We could keep seeing each other according to the rules, once a week.
I’ve forgotten the rest of the conversation. It’s a flaw of mine, throwing out questions without listening to the answers. The answers must have been vague. Ambiguous. Hesitation, then an “I don’t know.” We kissed in the hall. He said: you’re good for me.
I said: you’re good for me too.
He left, and I slept alone that night.
The further I got in the novel, the more urgent it became for me to make a radical change in my life. For the moment, I didn’t see that change coming. I didn’t want the book to be a blip in my emotional development. A writerly experiment with misery. I had to be fully and truly committed. If I wanted to put writing at the centre of my existence, I had to go all the way. Solitude was the only possible answer. The act that would ask the most of me. I thought about what Annie Ernaux says in L’écriture comme un couteau: “I also resisted diving into the writing of The Frozen Woman. I suspected that, consciously or not, I was endangering my personal life, that when I finished the book I would be separated from my husband. Which is what happened.”
Thinking so hard about the relationships in my life could only lead me to cast doubt on everything, on my marriage, myself. I was slipping. I wanted to slip.
I was alone in the canal, hair down to my feet and full of shells and dead leaves, seaweed under my arms. My breasts bare. I was singing “Wicked Game” à la Pipilotti Rist. But there was no one to hear me. Ten past ten, no moon. I was waiting for him, reviewing everything I had to say to him, most of it trivial. Would he come? Did he want me? An emotionally dependent mermaid. Only able to find happiness in another. I polished myself, scrubbed my skin until it glistened. I wanted to become that precious thing he’d want to keep forever.
Prague by Maude Veilleux. Translated by Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall. Forthcoming in translation from QC Fiction, June 2019.