The Truth about Marie

Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Artwork by Yohei Oishi

We drove to a small deserted cove where the lapping of waves and the hum of insects hardly broke the afternoon silence of the shore. Marie strode up to the water in her bathing suit, she'd picked up a stone and was bent over pulling mollusks off the rocks, which she then popped in her mouth as she continued to amble down the shore, sucking on the shells before throwing them back into the sea with a listless, sideways flick of the wrist. She collected winkles from the cracks in the rocks, holding a small heap of them in her cupped hand. She continued on her way, pensive, crouching at a rock that jutted halfway out of the water, its surface covered in moss and green algae and concretions of crenulated shells, a compact mass of balanomorpha, and, gripping her stone tightly, she tried to detach some miniscule mussels, their shells bristling with braided filaments. She walked back over to me and dumped her booty at my feet, spreading her hands wide and letting fall a cascade of wet shellfish that clinked as they fell into a loose pile at my feet (I tried to dodge them in vain by wiggling my toes in the air). Then, leaping over my body on the rocks, she grabbed a T-shirt and a pair of shoes, with which she built a small enclosure for the shellfish, a natural reserve, a fish pool of diverse vongole to add to our spaghetti later that night.

Marie had returned to the shoreline. She stood with her feet in the water and her hands on her hips, lost in contemplation, observing a sea anemone gently floating underwater at her feet, sinking and rising to the surface with the waves, its tentacles deployed and undulating in the current like transparent strands of hair waving in the water. Then, resolute, she entered the water, her arms spread, lifting them high lest the waterline reach her armpits, letting out clipped shrieks of protest, brief sharp cries expressing the thermal difference between her body and the sea, before letting herself fall back into the water joyously, submerging her head completely underwater. She frolicked thus for a bit, then asked me to bring her her snorkeling mask. I joined her in the water, and she began rinsing the snorkeling mask by my side, spitting into it to clean the goggles. She adjusted it and put it on underwater, taking a quick look around under the sea. There are a ton of sea urchins, she told me excitedly, in a slightly nasal tone, her nose pinched by the mask, and, swimming away from me, she dove headfirst into the water, her feet kicking wildly in the air before fully disappearing into the sea. She'd completely vanished in the deep water, only tiny bubbles rising to the surface gave her away. Having no tool, no small knife or fork, she stayed underwater for a long time, surging up suddenly out of breath and glancing around for me, her mask askew, spitting water out of the snorkel like the vertical spray of a whale, with, in her hands, three beautifully mauve and slimy urchins, their quills, still moving, covered with miniscule mineral or vegetal deposits, bits of algae and tiny pebbles, debris of colored stones, shards of broken shells. She got back on her feet and headed to shore, swaying her hips as she pushed against the current, slicing the water with her thighs. She grabbed a large stone from the rocks and opened the urchins, partially, breaking open their tests with blows of the stone, one after another, straightening her arms over the water and then shaking the shells energetically to remove any sea waste. She scooped out an orange-colored strip with the back of her finger and tasted it, first for herself, with a quick flip of her finger, as she brought it up to her mouth, then she offered me one when I got out of the water, still wet, feeding me tenderly two or three pieces (and I delighted in the taste of her wet finger as much as in the fresh and delicious urchin strips that melted in my mouth).

We went back in the water to swim, the sun's reflection broke and dispersed into silver glints each time we moved our arms in the water. Marie swam out to the open sea in her magnificent crawl, slow, steady, each movement precise, her arms lifting toward the sky and plunging back down into the sea with a slight delay, then she swam back to me and floated by my side, as though weightless in the water. Marie, elusive, swam toward me then away again, she was laughing, disappearing under the water. At times our legs brushed together, our bodies touched fleetingly in the sea, I caressed her shoulder as I tenderly removed some seaweed from her hair. Nothing was said, nothing stated explicitly, but more than once our fingers grazed and our hands lingered close together, our eyes met and remained locked for an instant. There was a sense of a familiar complicity between us, and I felt a strange mix of emotion and timidity. I wanted to take her in my arms, give myself to her in the sea, hold her body close to mine in the warm water. She swam back to me, her mask on her forehead, her cheeks glistening, she looked happy, and she smiled at me, beaming, mischievous, as though she'd just played a trick on me, and I saw then that she held her bathing suit balled up in her right hand.

Marie had taken off her bathing suit, she was naked in the sea by my side, and I followed with my eyes the fluctuating neckline of her liquid dress, which moved in synch with the water, at times conservative and reserved, a sort of crewneck sweater reaching her chin, and at other times more revealing, bold, daring, dropping all the way to her belly button when she floated on her back, lying weightless in the sea, her stomach and pubic hair glistening, her breasts emerging slightly through the tiny waves washing over her flat body. I didn't take my eyes off her, following her bathing suit with my gaze, her emblem, the pirate flag of her nudity in the sea. We stopped face to face, and we smiled at each other, I considered Marie naked and masked before me. I approached her and gently squeezed her shoulder, she didn't back away, her face became serious, she seemed ready to fall into my arms, when suddenly she saw a nacreous glint underwater—a Venus's ear!—and, slipping out of my arms like an eel, she broke away from me and dove straight down toward the glimpsed glimmer, presenting me with—before vanishing all together—the most graceful noli me tangere conceivable: the curve of her ass plunging into the sea.

Marie was basking in the sun next to me on the rocks. Tiny beads of water covered her naked body, and the sun, drying her little by little, left almost invisible specks of salt on her skin, whose taste I imagined vividly on the tip of my tongue. After a moment, pensive, her eyes closed, she moved her hand gently in my direction and uttered in a soft voice these enigmatic words: "I wasn't his mistress, you know," and these words resounded briefly in the silence of the cove. She didn't say whose mistress, but I'd understood, and I was grateful for her not having named him (as for myself, I pretended to have forgotten his name). Marie lay motionless on her back, her eyes closed, one knee bent, her hand flat against the rocks. The silence grew in the cove, broken only by the soft murmur of the waves lapping below. What was the point in telling me she wasn't his mistress? That she hadn't slept with him? This was highly unlikely, if not impossible, even if we could easily imagine that theirs hadn't been a sexual relationship in a strict sense, or in juridical terms, according to which sexual relations are dependent upon penetration, by whose definition fellatio and cunnilingus are excluded (in short, the activities two people can enjoy without necessarily becoming lovers), but I doubt that was what she was trying to tell me, no, not that. Marie seemed serious, she looked bothered, and the tone she'd used had had the sad solemnity of a confession or admission. I continued to look at her, and I wondered why she'd felt the need to tell me on this day that she wasn't his mistress (which, by the way, isn't the same as saying that she hadn't been his mistress, the past perfect tense she'd used—rather than the pluperfect—allows in its ambiguity this lie by omission). Perhaps she'd simply wanted to let me know she'd never felt attached to him, that she'd always felt free and couldn't in any case be considered the mistress of a married man, that it was in a way the word mistress, with its social connotations more than its actual reality, that she objected to, denying the word could be applied to her given its incongruity with her situation. I don't know. Or perhaps she'd simply wanted to let me know that, in the end, she didn't love him, she hadn't ever loved him, that, certainly she'd liked him, he'd come into her life at the right moment, she'd loved his kindness, his consideration, his gallantry, his easygoing personality, with him, life was simple, comfortable, reassuring—but ultimately it was someone else that she loved.

translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith

Click here to read a review by Anthony Luebbert on The Truth about Marie, also in this issue.

Click here for the various versions of the French manuscript hosted on Jean-Philippe Toussaint's own (and super-cool) website, along with plans, variantes and débris.