Translated from the French by
I was awakened by someone whistling. And I smelled coffee. I risked opening an eye. A veil of rain was fogging a small window I hadn’t noticed the night before, hidden as it was by a curtain that was now pulled aside.
“You sleep soundly, don’t you?” smiled Gaby, while stirring his coffee at the little table, all bright and perky.
He was already dressed, and newly shaved.
“What time is it?”
“Ten at least.”
“That’s not late.”
“The sun’s been up for a good three hours.”
I sat up in bed, groaning, so he’d know exactly how I thought about the day. Then I drew my fingers through my hair and saw that my braids were all tangled. I quickly removed my hand, a bit embarrassed.
“Come on, drink your coffee and after, if you want, there’s a shower in the hallway, I can lend you a towel.”
Was he reading my thoughts, or what?
“That’s okay, I know where mine is.”
I found shampoo and conditioner in the shower. Even without a comb, I managed to loosen most of the knots with my fingers, that was progress already.
Two or three days earlier I’d collected enough money to wash a load in the laundromat. A good move: I felt almost beautiful going back into the room in clean clothes. But I didn’t know how to deal with this strange bird who hadn’t even tried to touch me during the night.
“Come and eat,” he ordered me, waving his hand over the bread, butter, and jam that had appeared on the table while I was getting washed.
He didn’t have to say it twice.
“The Bonne Maman, they’re kind of ekshpenshive, he declared, downing his last mouthful. But they’re the best.”
“Ah, yes, I hadn’t noticed the name. It’s not everyone who has a good mother, you know.”
“You may be right. Tell me, what do you do for money?”
“You’ve seen me, I sing in the street with my guitar.”
“And that works?”
“Does it ever! Yesterday I picked up at least three dollars.”
“Okay. The rent for a room like this is 17 a week. Do you think you’d be able to make it?”
“I don’t know. I could always try.”
“Good, I like your attitude. Here’s what we’ll do. Today we’re the 27th. In a few days there’ll be a room freed up at the end of the hall. You’ll take it, and in the meantime you’ll stay here. If that’s what you want, obviously.”
My mouth full of food, I didn’t have to reply. In fact, I didn’t know what to say. Me, take a room? I confess that up to then the idea had never crossed my mind.
I was living day to day, and not even that. Hour to hour.
“So? Cat got your tongue? Do you want the room or not?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t even seen it.”
Gaby rolled his eyes.
“She’s playing hard to get, besides! Okay, come with me.”
We went to knock at number 3. We heard music inside. Joe Dassin’s Indian Summer was on all the radios. A girl in a miniskirt came to open the door. Gaby introduced us, then Myra invited us in. Right away, I saw the brightness filling the room despite the fat grey clouds looming over the day. On Gaby’s side you mainly saw the facing wall, while this room looked out on the open side of the building.
“Okay,” I said.
“There you are. Janis is going to take your room, Myra.”
“Great. That way, Esther won’t be the only girl. You’ll be neighbours: they’re just between Gaby and me, she and her boyfriend.”
“They’re still sleeping at this hour, they go to bed late,” observed Gaby.
Myra shook both our hands, then we found ourselves side by side in the hallway, a bit ill at ease.
“So what are you doing today,” he asked me.
“Hmph,” I grumbled. “When it’s raining like this, it’s not much fun playing outside.”
Playing outside. That didn’t mean what it once did, when I was a child.
“Listen, today is a study day for me. Do you think you could keep quiet and not disturb me?”
“I don’t know, do you have something to read?”
“Yes, I have two or three books that might interest you.”
Among the volumes of Talmud and Torah, I did find a few pocket books I could possibly curl up with. I began by opening up The Life Before Us by a certain Émile Ajar. Alone on Doctor Katz’s sailboat, I made a long voyage, and when I raised my head, the light was fading already.
“It’s really true that the best companion for passing the time is a book,” Gaby smiled, while clearing off the table. “Do you like potatoes?”
“Do you know anyone who doesn’t like potatoes?”
“I’m not sure, maybe you’re a fussy eater, too. It’s all right, I’m just teasing you. Come on, we’ll make something to eat.”
He led me into the kitchen, where the fridge was still grumbling away. Fortunately, it was plugged into the wall away from the room. Otherwise it would have been unbearable. He pulled open the door and said:
“Listen, I’m going to show you how things work here. There are three shelves, which is convenient: one for each room. I’m on the bottom. The middle one is for you, and the one on top is for Esther and Benjamin. There’s more room there for two people, you can pile things up. It’s the same in the door, each one has a shelf to store juice, milk, and so on. We share the dishes, and we wash everything in the sink over there. Okay?”
The sink was on the wall next to the hallway, abutting the bathroom. On the left there was just enough room for the enormous water heater in one corner, then the vibrating refrigerator in the other. Along the remaining two walls there ran a long counter where were installed a toaster, a dusty coffee machine, various cutting boards, as well as a big tin can where the cooking utensils were propped, forming a stoic bouquet.
Below, several milk cartons were lined up. Gaby bent down and pulled out what was left of a bag of potatoes, which he emptied onto the counter. There must have been five or six. He thrust a peeler into my hand.
“Now you peel and then I’ll grate.”
“You grate your potatoes?”
“Yes, to make pancakes.”
“Stop being suspicious and peel.”
Waiting for me to supply him with his raw material, he began by mincing onion and rapidly blinking his eyes.
“You know how clever an onion is? It can make you cry while you’re putting it to death.”
He dumped it all into a salad bowl and added the grated potatoes, a beaten egg, flour, and spices. Then he lit the gas under a large pan he’d anointed with a healthy spurt of olive oil. When the first sacrificial sample began to sizzle just the way he wanted, he started dropping in heaping spoonfuls of the mixture, which he flattened out before carefully turning them over at just the right moment.
Meanwhile, he’d put me in charge of cooking fried eggs. But as I didn’t yet know how to crack them open without breaking the yolk, they came out scrambled. I managed that pretty well. We flopped the result onto two plates, and went back to eat in his room. His pancakes were wonderfully crisp.
It troubled me to rediscover, on this new planet, the same fleeting gestures of day-to-day life I’d shared with Denis. I wash, you dry. You pass your hand over mine to reach the plates in the drainer, in the process I leave a trace of foam on the end of your nose. We laugh. We make sure the gas is off, the hot water tap tightly shut.
This time, I stretched out on the bed immediately. He came to sit near me, tilting his head to the side with a puzzled air, but I didn’t give him a chance to speak, I approached my lips to his until they touched. We nuzzled gently for a few minutes. We pulled back a little. We stared at each other for a moment.
Then he sighed:
“Okay, fine, but this mustn’t become a habit, all right?”
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021