Sidewalk in the Sun


Philippe Delerm

Illustration by Monika Grubizna

Paris Saint-Lazare
2 Kilometers

The train sails toward Saint-Lazare. It's hard to say whether there's a sense of delay or desire. All the same, the approach to Saint-Lazare represents fulfillment, even if whatever brings you to the city falls short of extraordinary. Above all, it seems as though you're always approaching Saint-Lazare, like Zeno's arrow, without ever hitting the mark. You cross the bridge at Asnières. Below, on the right, there used to be a swimming pool, a blue rectangle, an unquenchable thirst. In passing, much too quickly, there is just splashing and confusion—one has no time to focus on any particular swimmer, just a generalized impression of others having fun—an impertinent effervescence, a challenge. Then the pool closed, the rectangle emptied, and you could see the contours of the bottom, the downward slope of the tiles, a feeling of great silence—it's not the nearness of a cemetery that suggests death, but this hollow rectangle. Much later, the space was filled in and a recreation area took its place—an undulating rollerskating course, a lame attempt to say there could be something else there, in that spot, beyond the before and the after.

Asnières, Clichy-Levallois, Port-Cardinet, the high walls just below the Batignolles Garden, and posted in the shadows, a white sign with red lettering, "Paris Saint-Lazare 2 km." It's not like you had missed the first sign, a bit earlier, "Paris Saint-Lazare 5 km." To calm impatient passengers? Or rather to compound the increasing slowness of the train that jolts along almost in slow motion? For a long time you had to take a local train, then a regional one, to get to Saint-Lazare. Whatever the traveling conditions—standing, or more or less comfortably seated—there is this slowing, just before reaching the platform; the decanting of mental operations. You are coming into Saint-Lazare. You could be coming into Montparnasse, or the Gare du Nord. The destinations are different, of course; they don't cross. Nevertheless, there is a latent proximity that floats suspended in time and space. Apparently, every man is an island. But the buildings, the snatches of street, the faded posters, and the glowing neon signs are imprinted on their bodies, in their minds. That happens with a feigned indifference, a glum look, whether you are impatiently waiting to meet your lover, or you are an administrative assistant, or a bank clerk. Reaching Paris is a false consolation, even if walking purposefully along the platform belies your real feelings. That indifference veils the sham. Because there's a deep, hidden satisfaction, almost a sleepy happiness in being part of the voyage, in crossing infinitely into Paris and never getting there. In being in this life.

A Distant Cousin

A distant cousin who sometimes came to spend a few days at the house. She was pretty, two or three years older than me. Brunette, with bright eyes, long hair. Her dress daring for the times. I remember one summer vacation when she wore jeans over a bathing suit with a plunging back. Sometimes we took bike rides in the afternoon, together in the heat of the Garonne countryside. Some self-assured words from her, a low even voice, lightly nasal, some embarrassed mumblings of my own. A lot of silence.

Talkative, in contrast with the rest of the family in the morning, she stretched languorously—no: she gave the impression of stretching languorously—and, holding her bowl in both hands, said, "I adore warm milk in the morning." I always felt clumsy around her, but the feline confession of her pleasure paralyzed me with a feeling of crippling mediocrity and, I thought, plunged my whole family into a palpable discomfort. Those drinking black coffee could only nod in agreement with a noticeable absence of polite conviction. As for me, I found my tea with milk suddenly revealed as bland—the blandness of my small self, incapable of demonstrating in sensual majesty the appropriateness of my choice.

In spectacular fashion, my cousin embodied at once the superiority and the unseemliness of language and body movements that evoke the intensity of pleasure at the heart of a social ritual where all positive sensations should only be minimally expressed. Only children are exempt from such reserve, perhaps because it is considered normal for them to feel things more strongly, or more likely because they are excused for not yet having adopted the code. What justifies this code? Most importantly, how does the tacit prohibition against excessive expressions of pleasure alter the intensity of pleasure? We would find it comical enough to see someone tasting coffee with groans of ecstasy. But all the same, is it normal to always say, "That's good," with the objective detachment of a certified public accountant looking at balance sheet; "It's delicious," with a cheerfulness authorized only by the role of the guest extolling the dish that's been served—preferably at the moment when the eater is completely caught up in a much less gastronomic discussion, but feels an inner alarm clock going off that evokes, "It's delicious," in a tone all the more enthusiastic as the words are pronounced hurriedly, without missing a beat in a running commentary on the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition?

And what about those who never say, "That's good"? Are they perverted, or prisoners? Do they feel greater pleasure in saving rather than spending their share of outward expression? And so, do we or don't we choose to belong to the human contingent who know how to say, "That's good"?

Of course, she overplayed it a bit. Of course, she knew she was beautiful. Of course, she knew that she made us uncomfortable. Even so, it was good to see my cousin shake out her long hair, wait for the silence and deliver in her low voice, "I adore warm milk in the morning."

Shaking Out Your Towel at the Beach

Six-thirty. The beach begins to empty. Having had your fill of sun and wind, body pacified by swimming, you slip on a T-shirt. You get up. Consultation with the rest of the party unnecessary, you peacefully begin the ritual of departure. There will be mutual consent, without a word. These are empty days, that time of year when nothing is happening in the cities. You are a tanned idiot with a book as an alibi—you've read all of three pages—at the bottom of your bag. At first, you went to the beach as soon as the sun came up, but now that the good weather has settled in, you draw out the mindless morning tasks. Going to get bread and the paper, you'll buy paper towels; you still have fruit until tomorrow. You stop for coffee at the corner of the square, next to the old church that gives the seaside resort its authentic village feel. In the early afternoon, you take a nap without any guilt. You spend two hours on the beach, three at most, the sun beats down hard, you are already tan enough, and anything beyond this would be pointless.

In this slow, deliciously slack life, one gesture is utterly satisfying. Shaking out your towel. A lot of people have already left the beach, so you no longer run the risk of blinding your neighbors. The terrycloth is almost dry, just a little heavy. You snap it in front of you, several times, with a strange pleasure, which has nothing in common with a domestic task effectively performed. In the desire to free the towel of every last grain of sand, there's a little of that gratuitous obstinacy with which some people clean a peach pit with a knife point. But it's more than that. A small finale that you enact without any sadness—tomorrow you'll come back, the summer has taken on this repeated immobility that dilutes tensions, expectation. A kind of flag salute, too. You took one step at a time. For hours you stretched out on the sand. Now you get up. With vigor, you salute the tranquil emptiness that captured you again this year, with these rituals of modest eternity. You don't shake out your idleness. You unfurl it.

Enjoying Yourself in Turin

No one had anything very exciting to say about it. Just a little condescending drop in the inflection of the sentence, "Ah! You're going to Turin!" Much left unsaid in that reservation. Turin, it's not really Italy. In a country that has one seductive city after another, the name is almost repellent, bringing with it the idea of heavy industrialization, and the city's proximity to the French border. Already, in counterpoint, arises the idea of being pleasantly surprised by it, the healthy hope of overturning archetypes.

Surprise. No need to force yourself. The squares in Turin are expansive, much more beautiful than you could have imagined. Of course, the opulence of the palaces doesn't provide much of a change of scenery, but an astonishing atmosphere of freedom hangs suspended in the sunlight of early October. You venture onto the terrace, fully aware that coolness will settle quickly with the dark. Leaving the Piazza Castello you discover the quaint charm of the Galleria Subalpina, an old glass-covered passageway that's almost Nordic, or Slavic.

In the morning, the town comes alive very early, everything fast, busy. Slipping through as a flâneur is easy, even against the current. Under the arcades, secondhand bookstores collapse in a disorder that has little to do with the Fiat empire. You follow the road to the Po. To the west, you catch a glimpse of a few alpine peaks. In front of you, hills scattered with patrician villas. You are approaching the river. Rowing clubs, hybrids of British tradition and Italian elegance, dot the bank on one side.

There is no lack of reasons for admiration, for contentment, but the reward  comes from that first inkling of doubt which plays a role in the alchemy of pleasure. To like what others disdain, what they mistrust. It isn't so much about playing the iconoclast as it is about gaining a capacity for personal astonishment. You are not like Léautaud, who bought up copies of Neveu de Rameau for fear that they might fall into the wrong hands. But neither are you like those who want to read only what others are reading. You like to believe in yourself a little. Enjoying yourself in Turin.

Campo San Polo

Open air cinema, mid-summer, in Venice, Campo San Polo. A large space, but out of the way, off the beaten tourist path. Who would've guessed? The movie started a while ago. It's good to sit some distance away, on a bench. You can just see a bit of the screen that rises above the fence. You listen to the soundtrack, you see a close-up of half of Mastroianni's face in . Just like that, in Italy, very late, a July evening. A film you can't really see, words you can't really understand. But that music of the Italian language seems made for the cinema, for a bittersweet exchange between a man and a woman. The blaring sound system. The ice cream vendor is still open. You buy a coffee ice cream. You return to the bench. It's funny. Just a simple moment of aimless strolling, but at the same time, it is a moment that distinguished itself from every other that evening. You vaguely remember 8½, enough that some beveled images, some singsong phrases and their disenchanted psychology, set up a delectable dramatization, which suspends the coffee ice cream in a singular tonality.

With each lick, you savor the warm night. Real life is on the half-hidden screen, in black and white. In the anxious inflection of voices that don't truly manage to bring beings closer together. The loudspeakers attest to this melancholy truth without concession. We are always just outside; we are not in love. Real life is a show. We buy tickets in order to gather on carefully arranged chairs and be sad together. But, even so, there's another real life in which you savor a coffee ice cream while saying to yourself, This is good, this open air cinema. What's playing next week? Oh, a Woody Allen movie, that should be funny, apparently it's dubbed into Italian. In love stories, men and women yearn for each other, but, when it's a fine night, when the sadness of the cinema is good, you'll arrive early, you'll stay behind the fence, best of all no subtitles, just very quick words in Italian, very late Campo San Polo.

I'm doing the dishes . . .

I'm doing the dishes. From time to time, I lift my head and look through the window above the sink. The garden is still bare, the gray-green branches of the old quince tree spread their tentacles under a slightly mauve sky, as if a storm were approaching. On France Inter, a program on autistic children. A mother tells of the hell she went through with her daughter, the psychiatric hospital, the cell-like room, the electric shock treatments, and then death. Suddenly I'm embarrassed by my desire to write about good things.

The mother explains that she felt the need to write a book on this part of her life. She doesn't analyze the reasons that drove her there, doesn't talk of catharsis, of forgetting or remembering. What she experienced seems so far beyond all psychology.

A hailstorm lashes against the window panes. Hands still wet, dishes done, I remain there, listening to the strong, soft voice that is now saying:

"It's funny. I set out to write this book, and the only things that came back to me were the good times."

At Last!

Ah yes. It's right at this moment. You sink into an armchair, and the sigh that escapes contains all your exhaustion. Before the hint of pleasure, it's the relieved acknowledgement of all the mixed tensions, of all the waiting, of all the small hypocrisies of social exchange, of all the annoyances. Yes, all that takes off in the bubble of a sigh. At last you are going to feel real, the entire body consenting, first stretching, then immediately beginning to curl up, searching for softness and resistance, abandon and support. Your neck stretches from left to right before sinking into bliss. Your back endlessly straightens and relaxes in turn, its form fitting itself to the armchair that waits to make you comfortable.

In bed, the body is forgotten, fades away, is engulfed. In an armchair, it's much more ambiguous: you want to completely relax without losing yourself. You don't fully succumb. You continually feel, you occupy the contours of the chair.

You are there, truly there, propped up in a little parenthesis. Behind you everything has vanished. Toward what lies ahead you feel benevolent. Of course you'll listen attentively to the words that are beginning to be spoken to you. But there must also be that infinitesimal moment when you don't hear any more. You nod in agreement, let your eyelids close, as if to postpone the moment when you'll have to speak yourself—for you are entirely absorbed by the silent conversation between your body and the armchair. Soon the pleasure of the sensation will be diluted in renewed mental activity. So you quietly steal those pure seconds during which time disappears. Just after the sigh you truly feel well, your whole body soothed in its deep shell. You exist in the absolute, without thoughts, without plans. You'll cross your legs and extend them into the warm happiness of immobility. You'll be refreshed and protected, present, distant, drifting off into the moment before sleep. At last!

I continue to approach Saint-Lazare . . .

I continue to approach Saint-Lazare, with feigned indifference, amid a discreet crowd where no one speaks. We are one: those who are still sleeping; those who board at Breval, and laugh too loud; those last to board at Mantes-la-Jolie, who have to resign themselves to standing up. Like the rest of us, I have lived my life at the end of the platform.

As a child, I boarded at the Louveciennes School. Sometimes on Thursdays my sister took me to Paris. Ah, the steep little path that climbed to the station! With her salary from Ipsienne, she treated me at a creperie on Rue Grégoire-de-Tours, or even at a restaurant at Place du Tertre—four hundred francs for a half-bottle of water, an extravagance. In the afternoon, a movie: How the West Was Won or The Alamo. Other Thursdays, I took the train with my mother. The platform at Louveciennes, still in the provinces, and then after Saint-Cloud you caught sight of the Eiffel Tower. The first floor of Printemps, all those towering blonde salesgirls. In the evening, pudding from Le Bras.

At Saint-Lazare, January 22, 1970, I said to a lovely fellow student with gray-green eyes whom I had known barely three months: "I'm short on flowers." Reference to a rather ironic Anne Sylvestre song:

Being short one day on flowers
You offered me, like that, your heartIn waxed paperWith a label.
I already knew that we were perfectly compatible. Since then, life has passed, together.

Slowly I searched for the words. I put a lot of "I's" in my novels, which led me toward something else. The day came when I wanted to say on, "one." A book was born, which used only that pronoun, and this book changed my life. On. I propose to you to be together. Of course, January 22, 1970, is mine, as is the round pudding of Le Bras. Of course I continue to put a lot of I's in all the on's. But we have embarked, and much more as on than we would think. Like Zeno's arrow, we know at least half our time remains. An eternity to live here, in the rattling of a train slowing down. Paris Saint-Lazare, two kilometers.

translated from the French by Ellen Sprague