I was watching my daughter through the glass. She was asleep, resting on her left cheek, mouth hanging open. She was barely two days old and you couldn’t see the movement of her breathing.
I pressed my forehead against the pane. Only a few inches separated me from her cradle and I wouldn’t have wondered had it floated into the air, weightless. The branch of a plane tree caressed the window with the regularity of a fan blade. My daughter was the only inhabitant of that white and powder-blue room called the Caroline Herrick Nursery. The nurse had pushed the cradle close to the pane so I could see her.
She wasn’t moving. An expression of beatitude floated on her tiny face. The branch kept swaying silently. My nose flattened against the glass, leaving a spot of fog.
When the nurse returned, I bolted upright. It was nearly five o’clock and I didn’t have a second to lose if I wanted to make it to town hall before the Office of Records closed.
I rushed down the hospital stairs, leafing through a small book with a red leather cover: our “Family Record Book.” The title evoked the same respect I feel for all official documents, diplomas, notarized transactions, genealogical charts, zoning ordinances, archival papers, pedigrees . . . On the first two pages was a copy of my marriage certificate, with my full name and that of my wife. We had left blank the lines for “son of,” to avoid the morass of my civil status. The fact is, I don’t know where I was born or what names my parents were using at the time. A navy-blue piece of paper, folded in four, was stapled to this family record: my parents’ marriage certificate: My father appears under an assumed name because the wedding had taken place during the Occupation. It said:
Megève, Office of the Mayor
On 24 February Nineteen Hundred Forty-four, at 5:30 pm.
The following persons publicly appeared before us in the Town Hall:
Guy Jaspaard de Jonghe, and
Maria Luisa C.
The intended spouses have each declared that they wish to live as man and wife and we have pronounced by the powers vested in us that they are hereby united by the bonds of matrimony.
What were my father and mother doing in Megève in February 1944? I would know soon enough—I thought. And what about this “de Jonghe” that my father had appended to his initial borrowed name? De Jonghe. That’s him all over.And it was there, in that very same restaurant, on an evening 30 years later, that he learned about the birth of “the little girl.”
I noticed Koromindé’s car parked on the street about a dozen yards from the hospital entrance. He was behind the wheel, engrossed in a magazine. He raised his eyes and smiled at me.
I had met him the night before in a restaurant with vaguely Basque décor. It was located near Porte de Bagatelle, one of those places you find yourself in when something important has happened, a place you would never go under normal circumstances. My daughter was born at 9 pm. I had seen her before she was taken into the nursery, kissed her sleeping mother. Outside, I had wandered aimlessly down the empty streets of Neuilly, beneath the autumn rain. Midnight. I was the last diner in this restaurant, where a man I could see only from behind stood leaning against the bar. The telephone rang and the bartender answered. He turned to the man:
“Monsieur Koromindé, it’s for you.”
Koromindé . . . The name of one of my father’s friends in his youth, who often came to the house when I was little. He took the phone and I recognized his deep, gentle voice, the way he rolled his r’s. He hung up. I stood and walked over to him.
“Are you Jean Koromindé?”
He stared at me in surprise. I introduced myself. He let out an exclamation. Then, with a sad smile:
“You’ve grown . . .”
“Yes,” I answered, hunching over as if in apology. I told him the news that I was a father, as of several hours ago. He seemed moved and bought me a drink to celebrate the birth of my child.
“Becoming a father is something, isn’t it?”
We left the restaurant together. It was called the Esperia.
Koromindé offered to drive me home and opened the passenger door of an old black Régence. During the ride, we talked about my father. It had been 20 years since he’d last seen him. It had been ten since I’d had any word from him. Neither of us knew what had become of him. Koromindé remembered an evening in 1942 when he and my father had dinner together, at the Esperia, in fact . . . And it was there, in that very same restaurant, on an evening 30 years later, that he learned about the birth of “the little girl.”
“How time flies.”
His eyes were misting up.
“And that little girl of yours, do I get to meet her?”
That’s when I offered to have him drive me to the town hall the next day, when I would register my daughter. He was thrilled. We agreed to meet in front of the hospital at five o’clock sharp.
In daylight his car looked even more dilapidated than the night before. He stuffed the magazine he’d been reading into a jacket pocket and opened the door for me. He was wearing shades with heavy frames and bluish lenses.
“We don’t have much time,” I said. “The Office of Records closes at 5:30.”Koromindé stopped at a red light. He was lost in thought. The lights changed three times and he didn’t move.
He looked at his watch:
“Not to worry.”
He drove slowly, serenely.
“Do you think I’ve changed a lot in 20 years?”
I closed my eyes to recapture the image I had of him at that time: an energetic blond who constantly ran his index finger over his mustache, spoke in short, staccato sentences, and laughed a great deal. Always dressed in light-colored suits. That was how he hovered over my memories of childhood.
“I’ve aged, haven’t I?”
He had. His face had narrowed and his skin had acquired a grayish cast. He had lost his beautiful blond hair.
“Not really,” I said.
He worked the stick shift and turned the steering wheel with generous, lazy movements. As he veered onto an avenue perpendicular to the one the hospital was on, he made too wide a turn and the Régence hit the curb. He shrugged.
“I wonder if your father still looks like Rhett Butler . . . you know . . . Gone with the Wind.”
“So do I.”
“I’m his oldest friend . . . We’ve known each other since we were ten, back in Cité d’Hauteville . . .”
He drove down the middle of the avenue and scraped against a truck. Then he turned on the radio with a mechanical gesture. Someone was talking about the economic situation, which according to him was growing worse and worse. He predicted a crash as dire as the one in 1929. I thought about the blue-and-white room in which my daughter was asleep and swaying plane branch that caressed the window.
Koromindé stopped at a red light. He was lost in thought. The lights changed three times and he didn’t move. He remained expressionless behind his tinted glasses. Finally, he asked:
“So does your daughter look like him?”
What could I say? Maybe he knew what my father and mother had been doing in Megève in February 1944 and how they had celebrated their peculiar wedding. I didn’t want to ask him quite yet, for fear of distracting him even more and causing an accident.
We followed Boulevard d’Inkermann at parade speed. He pointed out a sand-colored building on the right with porthole windows and large semicircular balconies.
“Your father lived there for a month . . . on the top floor . . .” He might even have celebrated his 25th birthday there, but Koromindé wasn’t sure: all the buildings where my father had lived, he said, had the same basic façade. That’s how it was. He hadn’t forgotten that late afternoon in the summer of ’37 and the terrace that the last rays of sunlight bathed in rosy orange. My father, it seemed, greeted his guests bare-chested, in a bathrobe. In the middle of the sidewalk, he had set up an old sofa and some lawn chairs.
“And I served the drinks.”
Crossing Boulevard Bineau, he ran a red light and narrowly missed another car, but he didn’t care. He turned left onto Rue Borghese. Where did Rue Borghese lead? I looked at my watch. Five twenty-one. The Office of Records was about to close. I was seized by panic. What if they refused to register my daughter? I opened the glove compartment, thinking I might find a street map of Paris and environs.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” I asked Koromindé.
“I don’t think it is.”
He started to make a U-turn—but no, better to keep going straight. We returned to Boulevard Victor-Hugo, then Boulevard Victor-Hugo, then Boulevard d’Inkermann. Beads of sweat were running down his temples. He too looked at his watch. He murmured, in a toneless voice:
“I swear to you, my boy, we’ll make it in time.”
He ran another red light. I shut my eyes. He sped faster and gave short, sharp honks on the horn. The old Régence was shaking. We arrived at Avenue du Roule. In front of the church, the car stalled.
We left the Régence and speed-walked toward the town hall, 200 yards farther down the avenue. Koromindé was limping slightly and I was in front. I started to run. Koromindé did too, but his left leg dragged and soon I was well ahead of him. I turned around: he was waving his arm in distress, but I kept running faster and faster. Koromindé, discouraged, slowed down. He mopped his brow and temples with a navy-blue handkerchief. Bounding up the steps of the town hall, I gestured at him frantically. He managed to join me, so out of breath that he couldn’t make a sound. I grabbed him by the wrist and we crossed the foyer, where a sign said “Office of Records—2nd floor, left.” Koromindé was deathly pale. I thought he was about to go into cardiac arrest and I propped him up as we climbed the stairs. I pushed open the door to the Office of Records with my shoulder, while my two hands supported Koromindé. He stumbled and his weight dragged me down with him. We slipped and fell backward in the middle of the room, and the registry employees gaped at us from behind the bars of their counter.
I got up first and headed for the counter, clearing my throat. Koromindé collapsed onto a bench in the back of the room.
There were three of them: two women in blouses, 50s, harsh, nervous, bobbed slate-colored hair, who looked like twins; and a tall man with a thick waxed mustache.
“Can I help you?” one of the women said.
Her tone was at once intimidated and threatening. “I’m here for a birth registration.”
“You sure took your time,” the other woman said, without warmth.
The man squinted at me. Our sudden appearance had made a rather poor impression.
“Tell them we very truthfully regret this delay,” Koromindé whispered from the back of the room.
You could tell from that “very truthfully” that French was not his native tongue. He limped up to me. One of the women slid a sheet of paper toward us under the bars of her window and said in a perfidious voice:
“Fill out the form.”
I patted my pockets in search of a pen, then turned toward Koromindé. He handed me a pencil.
“No pencil,” hissed the fellow in the mustache.
The three of them stood behind the bars, watching us in silence.
“You wouldn’t have a pen . . . by any chance?” I asked.
Mr. Mustache looked stupefied. The twin sisters folded their arms over their chests.
“Please, sir, a pen,” Koromindé repeated in a plaintive voice.
The man with the mustache pushed a green ballpoint through the bars. Koromindé thanked him. The twins kept their arms folded in disapproval.
Koromindé handed me the ballpoint and I began filling out the form, using the information in the Family Record Book to guide me. I wanted my daughter to be named Zénaïde, perhaps in memory of Zénaïde Rachevski, a stunning woman who had captivated me as a child. Koromindé was looking over my shoulder to oversee what I was writing.
When I had finished, Koromindé took the sheet and read it, knitting his brow. Then he handed it to one of the twins.
“This isn’t on the list of French names,” she said, stabbing her finger on “Zénaïde,” which I had spelled out in huge capitals.
“And what of it, madam?” asked Koromindé, in an altered voice.
“You cannot give a child this name.”
The other twin had bent her head near her sister’s and their foreheads met. I was crushed.
“So what can we do?” asked Koromindé.
She picked up the phone and dialed a two-digit number.
She asked if the first name “Zénaïde” was “on the list.” The answer was: NO.
“You cannot give a child this name.”
I swayed on my feet, my throat tightening.
The man with the mustache approached in turn and picked up the form.
“But of course we can, miss,” Koromindé whispered, as if giving away a secret. “We can give the child this name.”
And he raised his hand, very slowly, like a benediction. “It was his godmother’s name.”
The man with the mustache bent forward and leaned his ramlike forehead against the bars.
“In that case, gentlemen, it is a special situation, and an entirely different matter.”
He had an unctuous voice that did not at all match his bearing. “Certain names are handed down in families, and however peculiar they might be, we have no quarrel with them. None whatsoever.”
He molded his sentences and every word that emerged from his mouth was coated in Vaseline.
“Let us go with Zénaïde!”
“Thank you, sir, thank you!”
He made a sign of exasperation in the direction of the twin sisters and executed a pirouette before disappearing, like a dancer. We heard someone typing in the rear office. Koromindé and I weren’t quite sure whether we should wait. The two twins sorted through a stack of papers, talking in very low murmurs.
“A lot of births today, ladies? Business good?” Koromindé asked, as if trying to ingratiate himself.
No reply. I lit a cigarette, offered the pack to Koromindé, then to the two women.
“Would you like a cigarette?”
But they pretended not to hear me.
Finally, the man with the mustache stuck his head through the opening of a side door and said:
“This way, please.”
We found ourselves on the other side of the barred windows, where the two sisters and the man with the mustache officiated. The latter signaled for us to go into the rear office. The twins kept churning mechanically through their stacks of paperwork.
A small corner office, its two windows looking out onto the street. Empty walls, the color of a Havana cigar. A dark wooden desk with many drawers, on top of which lay an open register.
“Gentlemen, if you would please read and sign.”
The text, typed without a single error, specified that a child of female sex, named Zénaïde, was born at nine o’clock on the evening of October 22 of that year . . . A dozen lines for which an entire page of the register had been reserved. And the same information on the following page.
This time, he handed me a huge fountain pen with a gold cap. “Have you read it over? No mistakes?” he asked.
“None,” I answered.
“None,” Koromindé echoed.
I took the pen and slowly, in a large, jagged hand, at the bottom of the two pages, I wrote my first and last names.
Then it was Koromindé’s turn. He removed his tinted glasses. A bandage held his right eyelid open, making him look like a lost boxer. He signed, his handwriting even shakier than mine: Jean Koromindé.
“Are you a friend of the family?” asked the man with the mustache.
“A friend of the grandfather’s.”
One day, in 20 years’ time, if she was curious enough to look up this registration—but why would she?—Zénaïde, seeing this signature, would wonder who this Jean Koromindé could have been.
“There, all’s well that ends well,” the man with the mustache said kindly.
He looked at me with eyes that were gentle, almost paternal, and that even seemed slightly teary. He held out a timid hand and we each shook it in turn. And I then understood why he wore that mustache. Without it, his features would have collapsed and he would surely have lost the authority required of a civil functionary.
He opened a door.
“You can exit by this stairway,” he said in a conspiratorial voice, as if he were showing us a secret passage. “Goodbye, gentlemen. And best of luck. Best of luck . . .”
On the town hall’s front steps, we felt funny. There—we had seen to an important formality, and it had gone smoothly. Night was falling. We had to get the Régence running again. We found a mechanic who determined that the car needed a serious repair. Koromindé would come pick it up the next day. We decided to head back to Paris on foot.
We took Avenue du Roule. Koromindé, no longer dragging his leg behind him, walked with a lively step. I couldn’t help thinking about the large register book open on the desk. So that’s what a civil status register looked like. We must have been thinking the same thing, as Koromindé said:
“Did you see that? It’s a funny thing, a civil status register, don’t you think?”
And what about him? Had he been registered at some hall of records? What was his original nationality? Belgian? German? Baltic? Russian, probably. And my father, before he called himself “Jaspaard” and apprended “de Jonghe” to his name? And my mother? And all the others? And myself? Somewhere there must have existed registers with yellowed pages, where our names and dates of birth, and the names of our parents, were written in India ink, in an ornate hand. But where could these registers be found?
Koromindé was whistling next to me. His coat pocket was distended by the magazine he had been reading in the car, whose title I could see in red letters: a popular electronics periodical. Once more, I was tempted to ask him what my father and mother had been doing in Megève in February 1944. But did he even know? After 30 years, memories . . . We had reached the end of Avenue du Roule. It was dark and the dead leaves, coated in mud by the rain, stuck to our heels. Now and again, Koromindé scraped the soles of his shoes on the curb. I watched for passing cars, looking for a free taxi. But no, all in all, might as well keep walking.
We entered Avenue de la Porte-des-Ternes, in that neighborhood they had disemboweled to build the Périphérique. A no-man’s-land between Maillot and Champerret, devastated, unrecognizable, as if after a bombardment.
“One time I came here with your father,” Koromindé said.
“Is that so?”
Yes, my father had driven with him around here. He was looking for a garage mechanic who could get a replacement part for his Ford. He didn’t remember the exact address, and for some time he and Koromindé had crisscrossed the neighborhood, which was now completely demolished. Streets lined with trees whose branches formed a vault. On each side, garages and sheds that looked abandoned. And the sweetish odor of gasoline. Finally, they had stopped in front of an establishment, a supplier of “American parts.” Avenue de la Porte- de-Villiers looked like a strip mall in a tiny southwestern town, with its four rows of plane trees. They had sat on a bench and waited for the mechanic to finish the repairs. A German shepherd was stretched out on the sidewalk, asleep. Children chased one another around the middle of the empty avenue, amid dapples of sunlight. It was a Saturday afternoon in August, right after the war. They kept silent. Apparently my father was in a melancholy mood. As for Koromindé, he understood that the time of their youth had ended.
We arrived at Avenue des Ternes and Koromindé started limping again. I took his arm. The streetlamps turned on along Boulevard Gouvion-Saint-Cyr. It was the hour of long lines of cars, jostling crowds, but none of that penetrated the nursery. I again saw the branch calmly swaying against the window.
We had just participated in the beginning of something. That little girl would in some way be our delegate to the future. And on her very first try, she had obtained the mysterious possession that had always eluded us: a civil status.
From Family Record by Patrick Modiano; translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Published by Yale University Press in September 2019 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.