There was a joke going around our school: ‘What’s the difference between what the boy thinks about a penis and what an old man thinks about it? The boy reckons it is used for peeing. The old man in certain of it.’ Back then, I was a lad who had just stopped being a boy and the joke amused me greatly. Now I don’t find it as funny.
People don’t really talk about the impotence due to age. You can sooner find information about incurable diseases than about andropause. You are somewhat forewarned if you are to lose a hand in an accident or become paralyzed, whereas no one rushes to warn you about the fact that at some point, you become inapt for what you did best. I can’t tell what it’s like. Are you left with the desire but can’t get it up anymore? Or does the desire disappear as well? The idea that one day I won’t be able to satisfy Irène makes me ill. Because she wants my desire… not a certain type of touch, and I understand her, that’s what we all want. Otherwise, what happens between sexual partners wouldn’t be called eros, but massage or double masturbation. The question is: will I become inapt for love? And if so, what will the day be like when I look at a naked woman and not feel anything?
Irène tries to ease my mind… She tries to do things for me. She told me she would have taken a beating for me and many other things. She’s exactly like my mother. I was supposedly very sensitive in kindergarten. Can you imagine?
Sometimes, Irène really does manage to take over my migraines, but she can’t want herself for me, that’s a problem…
The first that age are the hands, the skin swells and reddens, the pores begin to open. I’ve seen so many old hands! I look at mine and don’t recognize them anymore. I’ve seen them so many times in others, I’ve seen them in photos and movies. In my imagination, my hands are still young: white, with no wrinkles, ungrooved. There’s nothing stranger than growing old. You continue to have all your former ages inside of you.
Your memories from since you were three are almost as fresh as those from the day before yesterday, as the ones from the age of thirty. There’s no chronology in memory. Time doesn’t pass in a recollection. Each remembrance is another world, another universe, just as real, just as true as the one in which the hands grow old. There is no order of things in our minds. The pieces fall together randomly, in one way or another. I look at my aged hands and continue to see the ghost of my young hands overlapped on their image. We carry an entire cemetery of shadows inside. I think about all the faces that I still carry with me, although the mirror doesn’t recognize them anymore. I think about everything that happens outside of the world, about all the impalpable ramps that make up our existence and about how we all pass through transparent labyrinths of memory, confused, trying in vain to gather ourselves into a single face and a single fate. I think about the hands that I paint with, as if they are one with the painting, as if nothing has happened to them since the moment I started working on a canvas and the moment I finished it, as if they are always the same hands, which ritualistically perform the same gestures, as if life itself could still erupt from my chest with no stripes, no folds, no crosshatches or wrinkles, as if I could still understand it without increasingly complicated maps of desire. All the walls of my heart are covered in such maps. My views are full of crosshatches and arrows, of stripes that overlap the thin grooves that seam my hands, so that I only see the immaculate spaces between the wrinkles, the image of my white hands, with their smooth skin, forever young. Memory is the fountain of youth. Time doesn’t pass in memory. There are only statues with immaculate skin in memory. Caryatid-moments that support the walls of the world. I’m not afraid of death, I don’t care that there will be nothing left of me, I don’t care that I won’t come back, but strangely I can feel Irène’s pain following my inescapable disappearance, it’s an infinite pain. I can’t find another word for it. A pain heavier than Uranium. Deeper than the deepest hole, darker than a black hole. I can feel her pain pulsating in me like a second heart. Like a shadow of my own breathing that widens with each passing day. The fact that I can feel her pain, just as I can feel her passions and her throbs of pleasure, probably doesn’t mean anything. We are resonance boxes for each other, nothing more. What surprises me is how easily I accept her desire to commit suicide immediately after my death, given that I understand the proportions of this pain… Then, there will be nothing, not even darkness, it will be a liberation for her. I obviously can’t let her harm herself so much by loving me. I obviously have to do everything in my power to let her down. I can’t stand the idea of causing so much pain, even involuntarily.
Irène opposes the absurd in an absurd way. She has a sanctuary with photos from my youth. She frantically resizes and processes them in her programs and gives me the impression of someone who is fighting to convince a stuffed bird to flap its wings. My strategy was to live several lives consecutively, to start over from time to time, with no nostalgias. I only managed to do it partially, but I strived to, and I’m still striving. But Irène’s memory is like the National Archive: it records everything, it swallows everything, it absorbs and preserves everything embalmed in the liquors of melancholy, and it’s not easy to live when you are dueling with the hyperbole-image of your lost youth, in the eyes of the woman you love.
The first thing I noticed was that three of his photos, which I kept framed over the fireplace, were missing. Tristan was sitting comfortably on the couch, watching a very exciting game of snooker on TV.
‘Do you happen to know where the pictures over the fireplace are?’
‘In the fireplace.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I burned them. I didn’t like how I looked in them.’
‘I hope you’re not serious.’
He continued to sit there, with his eyes glued to the screen.
‘That’s ok. I can print them out again. I have them on my laptop and on CDs. I also have them on a memory stick, I have enough copies. But it will cost us about £15.’
He didn’t say anything, he just sipped from the coffee cup on the table and fluffed up the cushion behind his back. The folder in which I kept all his photographs was empty. A shiver ran through me. What if! I rushed to the drawer where I kept my CDs, but I couldn’t find the ones with the pictures of him. And the album I had brought from his mother’s house had also disappeared. I checked the memory stick too, although things were fairly clear.
He wasn’t going to justify his actions. I didn’t need to rummage through the dumpster in the street, because the garbage men had already emptied it. I burst into tears, rushed over to him and started hitting him, enraged. He threw me on the couch and immobilized my hands. He started kissing me savagely, believing he could calm me down, but I continued crying.
‘That boy in the photos was my soul! And yes, I love him, I love him. Precisely because you don’t care about him, because you consider him dead, you had no right to touch the photos! I need memory to be able to love, to be able to understand something from this life, to be able to motivate myself enough to move day by day. We’re not all as enlightened as you, as adapted to living only in the present.’
‘You love a fucking ghost,’ he told me, in a harsh voice that I hadn’t known until then.
‘You’re just as much of a ghost as him… In a month from now, none of your cells will be the same,’ I told him, just as cruelly.
I was sorry for it. In the end, he was right. I apologized, kissed his hands and placed them on my chest, crushing my lips on his, but I felt him absent.
Irène has begun to feel the pressure of his age on her, that’s what she told me. “If I could give him 10 of my years! Or at least grow old myself!” She’s in a crisis in which she perceives the passage of time almost physically. She’s started to go to the gym, to run, to strain herself, as if she could fortify him by acting on her own body or make conservation efforts for him, since his health is pretty feeble after the years of excesses he has subjected his body to. I won’t go into details.
I picked her up from the gym one day. She looked exhausted and was very thin, her cheeks had become as hollow as his. She had dark circles around her eyes and a distraught look. She told me passionately about a new series of paintings that Tristan was thinking about. I watched her gesticulate and utter the words in a manner very similar to his and I was afraid for her. I had hoped that, after knowing Tristan better, her frenzy would die down, but things evolved in the opposite direction. What followed was a failed act on my part, it was the worst possible moment to let her know that I was jealous. And I really wasn’t, I just wanted to understand, so I asked her some questions. She didn’t intend to live peacefully in a beautiful and stable couple life, but boil over, be devoured by obsession, intoxicated.
‘I too am a sort of Tristan who needs to walk on tall roofs and make moral leaps in order to feel alive. I was a child in the ‘90s, I know very well what a free runner is, I grew up in contact with that spirit. You have no idea how much I looked up to those guys!’
‘Yes, Norman, it’s crazy.’
‘So that’s it? That’s what love is to you? An extreme sport?’
‘How you love to give definitions!’
‘I understand that you admire acrobats… Unfortunately, your extreme sport is not exactly compatible with his desire to run,’ I told her, bitterly.
I remembered having read in a book, the author of which I don’t remember, that you can’t fall in love with a tangible man. How can you crave for what you have? Passion draws its juices from absences, from conflict, it’s a painful inflammation of an absence. And pain is precisely what keeps the flame alive.
Norman doesn’t understand, he doesn’t realize. I am a lot like Tristan. I know very well the fogs of melancholy that his wanderlust erupts from. When I was in Brussels, and even during the first years of marriage, I always had the impression that reality wasn’t alive enough. That I was living at a periphery of the world and I had to do something to move from it towards the center. I would have liked to reach the same intensity I lived at in the depth of my loneliness or when I painted, as in the tangible reality. You imagine things at a temperature that you would like to live at and you believe that you are wasting yourself and dissipating in an anodyne decorum. That’s the feeling.
When I returned from faculty, I used to take a bus that came at precise hours of the day. When I got on it, they were already on the bus, propped against the rear window: a boy and a girl. They never sat down. He leaned against the window at the back of the bus and stared into space, and she stood with her face buried in his chest. Their bodies seemed to be welded together and have only one face: his. I got on and off before them and that’s why I never managed to see the girl’s face, and the matter intrigued me. I tried to guess it and one day, I painted it. A few months later, I saw them on the street and almost fainted, that’s how shocked I was at discovering that in reality, the girl looked very similar to how I had imagined her. Of course the phenomenon was easily explainable: I had scraped up a female portrait, derived from his features. But I thought there was something more to it: a law of nature, an algorithm of instinct that made people who were predestined to form a couple resemble each other, in the essence of their features and expressions…
I don’t know what Irène was imagining, what she had hoped, what she had thought she could do. As soon as he started selling paintings and having some success, things went down the predictable path. Tristan began to disappear little by little. Each day, he was a bit more absent.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon… You shouldn’t panic.’
But she knew something was up.
He had begun to spend nights away from home, and she didn’t dare call him out on it. She would have only driven him further away, if she had. He would probably have suggested that they break up. She popped Xanax to be able to find some peace and rest. She could only sleep naturally in his arms. If she had to spend the night alone, she had anxiety fits or insomnia. She had begun to drink almost daily, although she didn’t even like alcohol and became tipsy after the first glass…
Irène learned to fight for love, she learned to keep him in check, to make him live under the impression that she was detached, that she had other prospects, she learned to obtain what made her happy and brought him into his state of levitation, namely his desire… If she proved short-spoken, he would begin to fear that he was losing her, it was a concern that brought his desire to the brink of incandescence. “We’ll only see each other if you can’t bear not to, otherwise we won’t”… and she pretended she could bear it.
In reality, Irène didn’t learn anything, Irène only imagines she has learned, she hopes she knows how to keep him in check, but he is toying with her, he gives her the illusion that she controls things from the shadows, but he knows very well the state of tension she is in for the two weeks during which she disappears… and he pretends to be worried by her anxiety.
He undresses her with swift and slightly aggressive gestures, two buttons burst from their tags, the silk of the blouse rips loudly. He holds her wrists in his hands and looks at her relentlessly. He only touches her after a while, running the tip of his tongue over her burning skin. He knows how to intensify her sensations. That’s what he did to all women: he found their weak spots and insisted on them, making them the prisoners of relishes that he could induce and control as he pleased.
‘And all of them dreamt of stopping him from his mad rush towards who knows what. Maybe except Beth, who was more excited by the applause,’ Norman warned her.
‘Irène, let it go!’
Irène looks despondently at Norman. She chokes on her words, opens her mouth trying to utter a phrase, but only disarticulated sounds emerge to the surface.
She was obsessed by a movie in which the characters are accidentally trapped on a giant spaceship that takes them further and further away in time and space from the planet that the center of their world is in. They have no control over it. On the day Irène was born, they were both in the center of the world, Tristan was feeling like a perfectly tuned instrument and ready to overcome the noise of the world, and the great adventure was beginning for her. Irène thinks about how they are both driven by a dark force further and further away from the initial moment, when they were at the center of the world. Then, all paths were possible, for each of them. Tristan could have gone down another path then. Or not?
‘Admit it, Norman, you love him too,’ she barely uttered. ‘We have the same problem, you and me.’
‘I have children, Irène, I have a family. A wife that I adore. We don’t have the same problem.’
Even Tristan’s mother called her, to confirm what Norman had said:
‘You’re a fool. You think that I didn’t try? That other women didn’t love him? That you are the only one?’
fragments from the novel The Black Box