Mariana Enriquez: On a French Love Affair and a Man Lost to Time
"I was never naked with anyone so beautiful."
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
He was sitting on the filthy mattress that served as a sofa on the building’s patio. I was leaving that same night, and I wanted to see him before I left Paris. I remember with great clarity how I thought: I am not in love. I’ve only known him a week. I don’t even know his last name.
Guillaume opened a pack of cigarettes and reached out his hand. I remember how he wriggled his long fingers asking for something, and I intuited what it was: a pen. He didn’t look at me. He wrote his email address on the silver cigarette paper: email@example.com. It was the European summer of 2003, and he was wearing a black suit as he sat on that mattress, with his elusive blue eyes, his hair so greasy it looked wet. I put his address in my wallet, and I didn’t tell him “I’ll write you,” and he didn’t reach out again for one last caress. He let me go.
The night before had been too excruciating. I went up the five flights of wooden stairs to my friend’s apartment where my suitcases were already packed, and around the second floor I started to cry and I thought, why is it all so dramatic, why do I want to go down and bury my nose in his white shirt that smells like the sweat of weeks and go with him? We’ll explore together, we’ll hunt in the deserts, we’ll sleep on sidewalks of unknown cities, without worries, without sorrow. I took a painkiller, turned on the shower, and told myself again that I was thirty years old, that any love only a week long, overwhelming as it may be, is forgettable, and a boy like that, so young—Guillaume was twenty-three—was a fling, a triviality, a game, something to brag about, the beautiful, gloomy Parisian, Rimbaud on Barbès, my dying boy with his veins dotted with needle tracks and scars from self-inflicted wounds, pale and precise marks, horizontal, recent.
When I got out of the shower and peered out the window, Guillaume was gone from the patio—the cour—and nor was his bag on the mattress. I was glad. When I left for the airport my friend went with me as far as the Metro stop: I looked for Guillaume on every block, his blond hair, his black suit. He wasn’t waiting for me at the station, either, though the previous night he’d promised he’d be there, before he got angry when I said no, that he should let me go alone, that our time together had been nice. Nice, he repeated. Très jolie.
I didn’t mention him to my friend. I didn’t talk about Guillaume for the rest of my trip, not with anyone, not even to lessen the story’s tragic air. I woke up nauseated every morning I spent in Barcelona, my last stop on that trip. From the other side of the bathroom door, the friend I was staying with asked if I was okay, and I said yes, just something I ate, too many planes, leftover anxiety. It wasn’t leftovers: it was an anxious bit of iron caught in my throat, and the memory of Guillaume’s legs, oddly hairy for someone so blond—the legs of a faun, of a demon. I looked at myself in the mirror after vomiting phlegm every morning and I downed tranquilizers on an empty stomach.
Still, I didn’t write him. I looked at the metallic paper in my wallet and I let it go. I went to the cyber café and sent messages to everyone who didn’t matter, boss, friends, ex-husband. I’d call my parents with a card—remember that? You scratched off a soft, lead-grey coating over the code: you had to enter it before dialing the number. Guillaume happened in that world, before Gmail, before smartphones, when the phone still rang and there were no social networks and life didn’t happen online, when you didn’t travel with your computer unless you really needed it, and search engines wouldn’t pull up résumés or photos or criminal records. I only have three pictures of him, taken with an analog camera. Two were taken at a party. Today, I just can’t understand that world where it was still possible to get lost and where it could also be impossible to find someone again.
I wrote Guillaume the very day I got back to Buenos Aires, exhausted, my suitcase untouched in the middle of the living room. I sat waiting for the reply, picturing him in some all-night cyber café on Rue des Poissonniers, smiling at my message. Refresh. My mouth filled with blood when I saw, in effect, the reply. Too soon. That druggie’s inbox is full, I thought. Or maybe he didn’t understand my message, my triple language—we spoke a little French, a little English, a little Spanish.
The message said the address didn’t exist, that the error was permanent and I shouldn’t try again.
It took me a minute to understand. Had Guillaume written his address down wrong? Was it an error with Hotmail? Maybe I had typed it in wrong? I copied and resent the message. Same result. Sometimes that happens when an inbox is full, I lied to myself. I slept fourteen hours on pills, woke up in a pool of sweat, vomited in the bathroom, and wrote him again with my coffee growing cold beside the keyboard. Same result. Permanent error, a message that you sent could not be delivered.
I remember the vertiginous desperation I felt, so much like panic. I think back to that moment and I’m astonished by the discussions I hear about romantic love, and how if it hurts it’s not love. How do you avoid adrenaline when you’re in an earthquake? How do you control panic in a house fire? How do you check a pounding heart when test results announce cancer or pregnancy? Who wants to live with all that anesthesia?
I called my friend in Paris. I told her what was happening. “My emails all bounce back.” I faked a certain amount of calm although I think she sensed my devastation. She said: “When I see him, I’ll ask him for his address again. That kid’s always fucked up.” Then she told me about her new job in a gallery in the Marais. I kept sending messages to the guillaumejolie address every day. Jolie. Bonito, nice. Très jolie, he’d laughed bitterly on our last night in that endless discussion full of sobbing and sex. He’d tricked me, the Jolie was his revenge. Why? I didn’t ask for his address, I didn’t demand contact. Did his ever-fevered body hold malice? I’d caressed his scars with my fingertips. He was always shaking. A man who wants to mutilate himself is certainly damned, I thought. “Let’s go to Charleville,” I said one day. “I hate France,” he replied. He wanted to go to Mali, where the musicians he played with had migrated from.“I know it’s not healthy,” he told me one night, after taking a pull of wine straight from the bottle, “but if you stay maybe I’ll feel like living.”
After several unbearable weeks, my friend wrote me an email full of gossip and news: in just one line she mentioned that she hadn’t seen Guillaume again, nor had he ever come back to Rue Myrha. His friends were used to those disappearances. Sometimes he went back to his parents’ house, in the countryside. Guillaume never returned to the building where my friend lived. She moved to northern Paris. She stopped seeing her old neighbors: the Chileans went back to Chile, the Normans who were Guillaume’s friends went back to Rouen, and she didn’t investigate more because I didn’t insist all that much, and after all it was only a week and our lives went on and I never heard from him again. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, I don’t know anything about the Normans, I never again found the band he played with, a search for Guillaume Jolie brings up any number—too many!—of useless and imprecise results, I don’t know if that’s his last name, my friend forgot my intense romance, and anyway it doesn’t matter now. It’s possible he doesn’t remember me. I know I never threw away the metallic paper with his shaky handwriting, but I don’t know where it is: lost somewhere in the house.
I didn’t dare throw it out because I’ll never have another man like Guillaume. Shooting up in the bathroom with the door cracked so he’ll be seen, like a poster child poète maudit. His sand-colored hair on the pillow and that sadness when he told me the little I learned about his family: his schizophrenic father, locked in a room because his mother refused him psychiatric help. A small town. The hugely demanding music classes. His disappointment when I told him I hated jazz. “I don’t hate it,” I backtracked to soften the blow. “I don’t understand it, I don’t like it.” “I’m going to explain it to you,” he said, and I replied no, no need, I’m leaving in a week, and he sighed and his enormous, thin hand took mine and rested it on his skinny chest, and he let me look at him. I’ll never have another man like that, his weak, moribund youth, a puppy who cannot live and doesn’t want to, but who ran away from the mother who should have eaten him and is now a walking suicide, a master in phantasmagoria. “I know it’s not healthy,” he told me one night, after taking a pull of wine straight from the bottle, “but if you stay maybe I’ll feel like living.” That’s how he talked: no shame, no fear, in the intimacy of the toxic night. I never mocked his intensity. I wasn’t cynical yet. I’m no longer fascinated by being near someone who wants to die; I want to be old, I’m no longer attracted to those fierce invalids, I imagine I’m domesticated, I don’t think the best thing is a good drunken sleep on the sand.
Maybe he changed. Or maybe he’s dead, just as he wanted. I was never naked with anyone so beautiful: his sunken belly, protruding hip bones, his back without a single freckle, smooth and soft like a newborn’s, his eyes that shone in the dark, his delicious neck with its little rings of dirt.
I forgot to mention how I met him. It was in Norman #1’s apartment. There was an impromptu party because we had music and alcohol. Guillaume kissed me after I asked him to pass the whiskey. We started a conversation that lasted seven days. At that party he danced naked at the request of a gay neighbor who crowned him the most beautiful man in the city. Then he put on his pants and led me to a corner and pressed me against the wall, I pulled up my skirt, opened my legs, and we had sex right there, in front of everyone. I don’t know if anyone noticed, they were all shouting and I think they were dancing flamenco. I felt tender and sad when, before penetrating me, he wet his fingers with saliva and asked me to help with the condom—best sex practices in the years of plague—and I saw the needle tracks on his arm when he brushed the blond hair from his mouth to kiss me, and we appraised with clear heads the extent of my innocence.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.
Mariana Enriquez will be appearing at the launch of event of the Freeman’s Love issue on October 13th at 6 pm ET with Andrew McMillan and Gunnhild Øyehaug at McNally/Jackson on Zoom. To register for the event click here.