Immobilized and in Love with Albertine Sarrazin, Patron Saint of Delinquent Writers
“I cannot move. Sarrazin comes to my aid.”
To me, Albertine Sarrazin appeared as the patron saint of delinquent writers, of winged eyeliner, of broken bones, of thieves. I was a 23-year-old with a penchant for petty theft and fare evasion, minor crimes that made me feel lawless and alive. I found her semi-autobiographical novel, Astragal, while stocking the shelves of a bookstore and read it in a single day. It starts with a jailbreak modeled after Sarrazin’s own: The narrator, Anne, jumps the prison wall and drops 30 feet to freedom. She breaks her ankle.
Albertine Sarrazin had a crooked smirk and dark hair framing her impish face. She was born in 1937 and died in 1967 at the unripe age of 29, due to complications during a kidney surgery. She was unrestrained by the fetters of society, loving intensely, living outside the law, writing fervently and unashamedly. When I look at photos of Sarrazin, I want to hold her head in my hands and kiss her, then run away with her. I want to be her. I tell myself that I’m not that far off. In reality: I am 25; I live in my parents’ garage; I am in love; I cannot move. Sarrazin comes to my aid.
I keep my skateboard in the trunk of my car. I have more persistence than innate skill: I go skating every day. There’s always an underlying unease that I might get hurt, which I try to drown out with the exhilaration of learning something new. I work as a barista at a local bakery and I make a dollar less than minimum wage. If I cannot stand, I cannot work.
In the last month of 2020, while trying to land a trick, I gracelessly fall off my board with my foot underneath me and hear a crack somewhere within it. Suddenly, my ankle is tenderly thickening in front of my eyes. At home, I ask my mother how to know if it is broken or sprained and she says if it’s broken, I will go into shock. Well, there is a shaking deep, deep inside me that I cannot calm.
Albertine Sarrazin’s existence is documented online in phrases such as, “She escaped to Paris where she satisfied her thirst for literature and art while she engaged in prostitution.” Or that the sexual abuse she endured from an adoptive family member instilled in her “an intense distaste for authority that stayed with her the rest of her life.” Her 29 years on this earth were not painless. When I read Astragal, I acknowledge that I conflate creator and creation. Sarrazin makes it easy: her protagonist, Anne, has a name by which she went herself. And she does not change the name of her rescuer-turned-lover, Julien, a fellow criminal who finds her on the roadside and delivers her to a safe house. He flits in and out of the novel, giving her attention and ill-gotten money. I have my own Julien, who carries me in dense, steady arms to his car after I fall.
The complete and mysterious affinity between us from the very start. . . long before he said anything, I had recognized Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips. . .
I always have to gauge what a lover may think of my crooked little habits. Me and my Julien are immorally compatible. Albertine and her Julien, too. They spent their relationship in and out of incarceration, corresponding through letters. Her last stint in prison, completed in 1965, was a consequence of being caught stealing whisky and provisions to celebrate Julien’s release.I wake up from a sleep I don’t remember falling into, like a chunk of time has been cut out of my life without a trace.
L’Astragale is French for the talus bone, the one which Sarrazin broke in 1957 and used to title her book. My X-ray reveals a spiral shaped fracture at the end of my fibula, where leg turns to ankle. Our broken bones converge at the same joint, so I fuse our limbs in my mind. My surgery is set for a week out. They want to screw me back together with a five-inch-long metal plate.
For the past nine months I’ve been living in the detached garage of the home my parents rent. There is a toilet and a sink and a bed frame I’ve made from six overturned milk-crates and a plank of wood. Now I am confined to this bed. My Julien brings over a TV. When I try to crutch to the toilet, the heavy plaster splint pulls on the ankle as if I’ve sunk my foot into setting concrete. The bone yelps in pain. I lie back down.
I was lying inside a rectangle, with, attached to me, an unfamiliar weight that prevented my escape; a weight of extraordinary inertia and rigidity, an obstinate, dead member, a piece of living wood with no regard for me or the efforts of my head and muscles to force it to obey.
My ankle, I feel, has betrayed me. I stare at it with resentment. It confines me to my room, where I can either lay in cave-like semi-darkness or turn on the too-bright overhead light, reminiscent of a hospital. I can’t bathe on my own or make myself a meal without wobbling on my crutches. My fibula has robbed me of my independence. I try to seek comfort in books, but I find that I can’t escape myself. Paperbacks lay discarded at my bedside. I place a hold on Astragal from the library and wait.
One night my Julien sneaks into a stadium that is in the process of being torn down. It’s the former home of our city’s now-defunct football team. He steals stadium seats and section signs to sell the next day. Later he will go back, and back again. He scavenges detritus from the coliseum, making more in one night than I do in a month at the bakery. Usually my Julien takes me along on his illicit excursions. He knows that I like trouble and that I can run fast. My heart aches at being left behind. If I wasn’t bedridden, I’d be hopping the fence beside him.
I can’t help it, but I dream about skating every night. It is, at once, both a comfort and an agony. When I’m awake, my days spill into one another, all appearing the same. I spend the sunlit hours lying either in my bed or, for variety, on the couch near the garage door. I stare at my computer until nothing on the internet interests me anymore. I stop writing in my journal because I don’t want to document my desolation. My Julien asks me, “Do you want any spending money?”
So it’s perfectly normal for me to feel my ankle turning and tossing in an abyss, that the small of my back should be arched like a rainbow, that pangs of hunger should be followed by pangs of nausea, that there should be a knot in my throat and my toes should lie on their plaster pedestal like five dead little blood sausages.
My manager from the bakery texts me always at the worst times, asking when I’ll be back. It’s hard to say. The whole job requires standing.
At the surgery center, they make me initial the busted leg with a marker, so they don’t slice into the wrong one. The letters will remain there for days afterwards. “I know it seems redundant,” they say, as they ask me to confirm again and again what I am there for and on which side of my body, ignoring my bandaged leg which I lug around like a brick. I cannot swing it up onto the gurney unless I grab it with both hands.
I wake up from a sleep I don’t remember falling into, like a chunk of time has been cut out of my life without a trace. I beg the nurse to hold my hand. I clutch her latex fingers and try to stop shivering. “You’re fine,” she says. The surgeon comes in and tells me the incision went through a tattoo, but he put it back together as best he could. I try to remember what is down there, under the plaster and gauze, on this leg I haven’t seen in a while. There’s a devil, a scorpion, a knife. Oh yes, he’s sliced into a dog.
The nerve block from the surgery lasts for the next 12 hours. I cannot feel anything below my knee, as if the leg is gone. I try to wiggle my toes and the command lands with a thud in my calf and does not travel further. The toes lie still. It leaves me with a deep feeling of unrest, a certainty that my foot will never obey me again. In the middle of the night the nerve block wears off and agonizing pain replaces it. But my toes move when I tell them to.
My father brings Astragal home from the library. I immerse myself once more in the novel that so deeply engrossed me the first time around. It is simply easier to endure pain when I remember Sarrazin went through the same. I feel the thrill of seeing myself replicated on the page. On New Year’s Day I read:
So I got ready: an old skirt and sweater, some Vaseline to soften my dried out face, the one slipper on the one foot.
I can do that, I think. I emerge from the garage and hop up the four steps into the house to join my parents, wearing an old skirt and a sweater, tricking myself into feeling a little bit more alive. Later, I pick up my journal for the first time since the break and I write this: “I need to make amends with my leg. I treat it like some banished part of myself. . .”
. . .one foot, even that one, shouldn’t be allowed to spoil everything; my foot was under the table with the other healthy feet, and it was healing from being among them.
Anne lacks self-pity in a way that makes me nicer to myself. The part of my brain that wants to believe the universe has some order is trying to convince me that some good will come of all this. Look at Sarrazin, look how she made her plight into a novel and now, 54 years after her death, I’m still thinking about her.
My toes look squat and lifeless, like stubs of ginger root. If I stand for too long, they purple. At night, my Julien strokes the place where my scalp meets my forehead. We have sex under the fluorescent garage lighting and he pauses in the middle to ask if my leg is alright.
There is a whole past of gestures, of tender little rituals created by Julien around my limp: in crowds he goes ahead of me to make a sheltered pathway for my steps; he holds me under the arm, as though to lift me up, on the side where my walk falters, he shortens his strides to fit with mine. . .
My Julien goes back to the stadium. He has bribed one of the security guards. He says, “I’ll be back in an hour. You know I’ll buy you something nice.” I don’t care if he buys me anything, as long as he comes back. Three hours later the garage door creaks open and he climbs into bed. I put my warm cheek against his cold one. I tell myself not to dream of anything when I fall asleep and it works.
Sometimes I crawl across the floor of the garage, on my hands and knees, as if I’m groveling before an unseen god. I find it almost funny. I spent my days in constant motion, skating until my shins bruised and my thighs buzzed, and now I am reduced to supplication. My knees bump against the concrete, my palms are calloused from the crutches. Please, I feel like I’m begging, let my ankle work again.
I dream of rising discreetly and with dignity, saying, “Excuse me a moment,” and of walking, casually, as though there were no particular hurry. . .
The absence of pain comes slowly and feels akin to liberation. The cast is just a shell to house my hermit limb. I lie on my belly in the afternoon sun, the cool cement of the driveway beneath me. I hold my feet up now during sex instead of one leg resting dead on its stack of pillows. My knee touches my jaw, my cast rests on my Julien’s shoulder.
My foot was going to do again what it was made to do: place itself in front of the other foot, support for a second the entire weight of the body. . . and I had walked for such a long time without even thinking about it!
On the final page of Astragal, Anne is recaptured by police. She says, “So what, at least I can walk.” I wiggle my toes inside my cast. They are rising from the dead. By next month, I’ll be able to stand again, and once I’m steady, I’ll step back on my skateboard. For now, I just need to stitch myself back together. I drag a folding chair in front of the stove so I can cook something while kneeling, as if in prayer.