I Was Silent

By Mathieu Ménégaux
Sample Translation by Nathaniel Dennett

 

“Tragedy is clean.
It’s relaxing, it’s certain… In drama, on the other hand,
with its traitors, its fierce villains,
its persecuted innocence, its avengers,
dying becomes something awful, like an accident.
In tragedy we can rest easy.
First of all, it’s just us.
We’re all innocent, in a way!
It’s not just because one of them kills
and the other one is killed. It’s a matter of casting.
In drama, everyone fights back because they hope to make it.
It’s disgraceful, it’s Machiavellian.
In tragedy, all this is gratuitous. It’s for the kings.
And there are no more risks to take—finally!”

Jean Anouilh, Antigone

1.

The door has just shut behind me. I wait for the usual clicking of the digital locking system, and voilà. I’ll be left alone until 7 AM tomorrow. Left alone—that’s a funny way of putting it: as long as I can ignore the new inmates’ moaning, the hatches screeching as they open and close, and the lights, flashing into the cell every three hours. A chilling sound makes its way to my ears from the men’s court to my ears, the deafening and obsessive noise of the guards’ sticks methodically hitting the bars again and again at nightfall, to ensure that they have not been sawed down. This is routine for the prison wardens, and something they obsessively enforce. It’s not much of a lullaby.

A hundred other women are locked up here too, but I am all alone. Solitary. This solitude, so hard and so rude, that I could touch it. Alone and crazy. Who can understand me? Nobody. Who could forgive me? Nobody. Who can judge me? Every single man and woman. We the people will do it, and we the people will have me put away, that’s for sure. There are three women on the six-person jury, but I expect no “female solidarity” from them. Ever since the trial began I was struck by their color, which does not have the papier mâché color that all of us women get here, after a few weeks, as if the color of the walls rubbed off on our skin. I forgot that people could look healthy.

As for the members of the court, they’re led by a judge, a man, whose red gown is lined with ermine—a sign of power if I ever saw one. He is surrounded by a man and a woman, his two assessors, in black robes. Men and women, jury and lawyers, experts and witnesses, spectators and commentators… None of it matters anyway. All of these good folk in front of me, judged me as soon as I sat in the defendant’s chair, even before they read the charges. I walked into this trial without a chance.

I’ve been locked in this women’s prison for two years now. My life has been limited to visits to the Palais de Justice to help the investigation and to meet with my lawyer. I can’t work with the other girls; it would be too dangerous for me. What else was there? Long spans of time spent waiting, periodically interrupted by dreary walks through the stormy rain, a few daily steps in a narrow courtyard where you have to stop yourself from walking in circles. Being unexpectedly searched in the communal showers, learning to forget your modesty, your intimacy and your femininity. Waiting. Conjugating the verb “to wait” in every tense. I spent those two years waiting. Waiting for the legal system to finally get around to my trial, waiting for the blade to fall, the punishment that I am praying for, so that I can finally atone and give meaning to my life again. Naïve as I was, I still believed in Sunday school nonsense, in inevitable redemption after punishment.

But it’s over now. I don’t have to wait anymore. After today, I know that there is nothing left to rebuild. The walls of Jericho have fallen. There is nothing left save ruins and rubble. I ruined everything, all by myself, and all the punishments in the world couldn’t do a thing to change that; no redemption is possible. Tonight, then, I’ve made up my mind: this is it. I’ll make myself beautiful.[1] Come morning, I’ll be free, finally free. I’ll get myself back, I’ll be Claire again. No more inmate number 13776. No more “Beyle, visitor’s room, now,” “Beyle, cell search” or “Beyle, transfer time.” Within these walls, no courtesy, no “Madam,” no first name. Here the impersonal rules: I am nothing more than my last name. It so happens, that even that isn’t mine, but Antoine’s, my husband’s.

So that’s it, I’ve made up my mind: I’m breaking out of jail. It’s all ready. I’ll climb the inner walls without a ladder, without a grappling hook, without tied sheets, I’ll fly over the barbed wire, wingless, I’ll disappear without deception, I’ll vanish without a weapon, without hate, without violence. Tomorrow morning is when I leave. As soon as I’m done covering all these pages with ink, sitting here on my bunk—as soon as I’ve put the pages in order. I will finally be able to forget. Writing is the last step of my calvary. I do not intend to come back on the third day. They will never see me again.

Writing. I had already started writing entire sections of my story while I was waiting for the trial to begin. It was a way for me to prepare for this ordeal and break out of my silence for a few moments. I didn’t think I’d need to finish this so quickly. But it needs to be done. Because before I get it out, before I’m on the other side, I want to be able to defend my behavior. “Defend” is probably not the right way to put it. I’m confused; I have trouble finding the words. Justify it? How does one justify the unjustifiable? Explain? Explain, yes, that’s it. It’s time again[2] to say the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The crushing weight of guilt got rid me of the desire and strength to stand up for myself these past few days at the trial. Otherwise, I might have still gotten myself out of it.

Now I want to give my full testimony. Since the justice system cares so much about the truth, I’m trusting you with it. I’ll start from the beginning. Please read this, whoever you may be, whether you’re the guard, the warden, the Attorney General, the president of the Paris cour d’assises, or a reporter. I’ll take you back to the start. Read this. This is my last conversation before I disappear.

Adieu. Tell Antoine that I ask him to forgive me, all 21 grams of my soul ask him to forgive me. It’s pointless to wait for your forgiveness, I know. You have plenty of reasons to withhold it. In my arrogance, I lacked the humility to trust you. In my conceit, I wanted to go it alone. I have been proud, stupid and unworthy. Today, finally, I have the strength to write. I write for myself, to escape. I’m not at peace, that would be impossible, but the weight of my silence has been lifted. I’m writing for you, Antoine. I’m writing so that you can understand, so that you can stop hating me. And I’m writing for you, police officers, citizens, lawyers, and journalists, all of you, so eager to Bastille me away while pretending to seek the truth. You want the truth? Go ahead, read.

I took the wrong path. I had hoped that it would lead us both, Antoine and me, to bliss. It was only once I had started down this road that I realized that I couldn’t leave it. Even that is not true. I missed every single exit, making the road a Highway to Hell.[3]

Yet another song. All of the events of my life, from my happiest to my darkest hours, from the most quotidian to the most improbable situations, have been described in song. While I have been unable to remember a movie or the characters of a book in detail, with time I have developed an incredible musical memory. This love of songs goes as far back as I can remember, when I was not even fifteen.[4] I always listened to music while working, walking, waking up, going to bed, when I was down, when I was happy. I would sing what I felt. For instance, I remember that when I was eighteen, I broke up with a boy in a café by singing I don’t need you any more, you’re nothing.[5] He asked me laughing, carelessly: is it true? And I said yes. There was nothing left to add. I never saw him again.

Songs have never disappointed me or betrayed me. How many times have I listened to or hummed that which I was unable to put into words? Songs have always followed me and if my solitude has been a little lighter to bear, maybe I have songs to thank. Tonight, behind my digitally locked door, I sing a little more, to give me strength.

Enough pussy-footing. I only have a few hours left to put an end to this whole story.

Let me go back to the start.

2.

It all began on a Saturday evening, in winter. It was one of those endless, dreary winters when Paris seems to be forever swimming in grey, when leaves fell from the trees so quickly it was as if we skipped the hues of autumn. I had just turned forty. Men still looked at me on the street, just enough for me to still feel attractive. That evening, Antoine and I had a dinner to go to. Another tiresome business dinner, an obligatory step for his career. I had no desire to go; I wasn't in the mood to put up with Vincent and Chloé, their perfect family, their sophisticated cuisine and their conversations, which bored me to death. But Antoine insisted that it was important to him. To persuade me to come along, he promised that we would leave early, and I eventually gave in.

I lingered in front of the closet and in the bathroom, taking my time to get dressed and do my make up, so that I wouldn't look so tired in front of Antoine's associate. In all honesty, if I didn't want to see him, it was because of the air of fulfillment about him. He seemed happy when I was not. And yet, I have all I need to be happy, my mother would tell me at our weekly lunch. Yes, she insisted, I had all I needed to be swimming in happiness: a caring, handsome, and faithful husband--as far as she knew, in any case... I had a fascinating job, lived in a beautiful apartment, and had the means to travel.

So failing to bear Antoine’s children was not the end of the world, decreed my dear mother. Although I held back from responding directly, a voice deep within me screamed: "But it is, mom. It's the drama of my life; it's destroying me, eating at me; it's an obsession that overtakes me, a tragedy that gives me crying fits whenever I'm alone and tired, or whenever I see a round belly, a baby carriage or a little blond head." I kept these tirades to myself, leaving my mother to feel as if she had comforted me.

The problem was Antoine. Asthenozoospermia, that's what they called it. From vitamin pills to daily exercise, from oligo-element treatments to tantric healing, Antoine had pretty much tried it all. But neither science nor hocus pocus could do anything to re-energize his lethargic sperm. A series of five attempts at in-vitro fertilization had failed, crushing all our hopes. Even when they reached close proximity to my eggs, his gametes weren't strong enough to pierce the membrane. So we finally gave up. Life without kids, wasn't it fabulous? Freedom, plans for just the two of us, crazy love, passion free of routine, we at least would manage to constantly reinvent ourselves. But there you have it, the free time that our lack of progeny had left us, both Antoine and I spent on our career. What a beautiful freedom that is, to constantly work more, to go further, climb the ladder faster than anyone else, only to crash every night in front of an American TV show. We were wasting our lives by making a living.

Despite our attempts to go out, to leave for the weekend, and have a social life, the lack of a child weighed on us, and seeing those strollers all over Paris, seeing those exhausted couples with one toddler asleep in a carriage, one standing on the buggy board, and another one between mommy and daddy, depressed us every time. We envied their strained looks, their sleepless nights, their worrying about a growing tooth, their errands, diapers, all of it, while at the same time they looked at us in turn, jealous of our freedom, probably...

We were falling apart. We were rotting. Life without kids wasn't fabulous. It wasn't a life. We didn't want to adopt. We wanted the flesh of our flesh. We wanted to leave a legacy, a trace of our passage on this earth, to make the thought of death easier, and to stop seeing every passing day as one step closer to the grave. We had given up on treatment, but deep down we continued to believe we could do it, in vain. We were split between secretly hoping and finally surrendering, both of us, even though neither of us dared to speak about it. Each one of us was sad and melancholy, but together we were resigned to our fate.

So for this dinner at Vincent and Chloé's, with their cute little blond heads that would come say good evening ma'am, good evening mister, and make me want to cry out every tear in my body, I was going to take my time. Predictably, Antoine made a scene in the car. He could never stand being late. There are men who spend days, weeks, months, waiting for women at restaurants or on the street. As for me, I've spent years waiting for trains standing on the station platform, for planes at the airport, right in front of the gate, forced to watch every single trailer and every single advertisement at the movie theater before the film begins, and getting there first at every dinner, because my husband is obsessed by timeliness.

Predictably, despite my lateness, we were the first ones there at Vincent and Chloé's. Just like every dinner. Like all the time. Predictably, too, I was bored stiff. Antoine and Vincent talked about their clients. There was a second couple too, but they might as well have been invisible; I've even forgotten their names; all I remember is that they lived on the Canal Saint-Martin, and that they told us about their move to their new loft in great detail. Chloé, for her part, felt obligated to tell me how her Vincent, in addition to being the perfect husband, was an amazing father, too. How depressing...

As soon as I had gulped down dessert, I started to yawn visibly while watching Antoine. But Vincent and he still had a lot to say to each other. "Creation of value," the focus of their attention, worried them in these days of financial crisis. Our brave knights defended it passionately. And I felt myself growing sleepy. I had had too much to drink, too fast, hoping that I wouldn't be quite so bored. At a certain point, I couldn't stand it anymore; I managed to make up some excuses: I was tired after a tough week and decided to go home before I fell asleep on the couch.

Antoine stood up afterwards, but I told him that he should stay; that I would get home on my own, and that I wasn’t going to deprive him of his evening just because I was tired. He sat down. If only he had insisted. If only I hadn’t pushed him away. If only I had driven home with him. If, if, if… I kissed everyone goodbye, thanked Chloé, apologized for not being better company and finally I left the apartment, closing the door quietly: I don’t like to bother the neighbors.

3.

That evening, the weather was nice. It was the first evening of that endless winter when it didn’t snow or rain. I decided to bike home by Velib’, instead of calling a cab. If only there hadn’t been a bike at the station. But there were a few of them, with their little green light. I carefully selected my bike according to my regular routine: I make sure that neither the front nor the back tire is flat; I lift up the back wheel and press on the pedal, to make sure I don’t end up with a bike with a broken chain and have to wait five minutes before getting another one; then I check the brakes. And so I was off, pedaling hard. I went up avenue de Versailles on the sidewalk, until it hit the river bank, where cars race along the Seine. I cursed whoever was in charge of signage, like every time I end up here, and waited to see if the stream of cars would slow down enough for me to try and cross, but it was too risky.

So I turned back, aiming to take the tunnel, the one that is so hard to see, with a tiny ridiculous arrow for bikes. I never liked this tunnel. It smells like piss, the paint is peeling off, the lighting is dim, the ceiling is low, and it’s narrow and unpleasant. But if I had to choose between being crushed by a Q7 and going through this tunnel, I wouldn’t hesitate a minute.

So I set off. Immediately, I saw him. Sitting down. His knees were at his chin, his back against the wall, and he was drinking beer. Another homeless man. A hobo. Daily misery of our big cities. Indifference and terror. Someone we look at with a mixture of condescension and pity. A “that only happens to other people.” A mishap. A poor old chap, who lost everything: it started with his job, then his wife left and so on step by step. No more money to get a place to stay, the Restos du cœur, nights at a shelter, his violent transformation into an alcoholic, fewer part-time jobs, more small-time theft, the arrests, the humiliation, the first night on the street, the cold and the terror, the noise and the smell[6], public benches, the metro, begging, fistfights over the contents of an old shopping cart, support from thugs, and then nothing, just alcohol all the time, alcohol as his only companion, as his only past-time, as his only reason to live. There was no dog. He had no cart. No bag next to him either. I thought about all that when he stood up. I always look at these poor souls. They say there’s nothing worse for them than to have us look away. So I slowed down and looked at him, ready to smile at him as I passed by.

But he stood up. No, he didn’t stand up. He leapt. I was looking at him. When he leapt, it was too late. He grabbed me by the waist. He literally lifted me off my seat, the Velib’ kept going on its way, until it fell, while I was suddenly crushed underneath him. I wasn’t afraid. It went far too fast. I thought, who the hell is this freak. But when he spoke I was afraid. Afraid. What a weak word, afraid. “Shutit.” A single word. Or two, I don’t know. “Shut it.” He didn’t even say it again. Cold. His arms, gripping me. Terror. Panic. My heart going crazy, images flashing, I’m going to die, Antoine, mommy, no, not now, it’s too soon. Not a sound comes out of my mouth, but my entire body tenses up. His arms are like a vice. I toss and turn, trying to get free, but he shoves me to the ground, with one hand on my mouth, his chest against mine, crushing me; I can’t breathe. I can smell the acrid smell of sweat, filth and the street. He slaps me. My head is exploding. A slap, a huge bitch-slap. I am dazed. Still I manage to mutter, “take everything, I won’t talk, I won’t call the police, the pin for my credit card is 7454, please, leave me alone—” “Shut the fuck up, he said.” Then I saw the knife. I felt the knife. The blade, against my throat. And a hand, beginning to unbutton my pants. He didn’t give a fuck about my wallet. He brushed the blade against my cheek. His eyes twinkled. He was rejoicing. What are you supposed to do, at times like these? I understood without the shadow of a doubt what was happening to me. They say that a survival instinct takes over during an emergency. They say that we turn on our autopilot. Bullshit. Either that or I’m not like everyone else: I thought about it. Yes, I thought about it, that’s what I said, thought about it. I analyzed in a flash the two options available to me: struggling, crying out, screaming, scratching him, resisting him, pushing him away, all of that for nothing, he was far stronger than me and he was armed, all of that without changing the course of events and taking the risk of ending up with a slit throat, here in this tunnel; or, letting it happen, telling myself that, yes, this freak is going to rape me, but that it doesn’t have to be long, and once he’s relieved he may let me live. Live this life that’s so boring. Saint-Exupéry said that courage just hits you. For me, it was passivity that just hit me.

So I let him do it, the motherfucker. His hands kneaded my breasts, his fingers dug into my sex, it still hurts, right there, it makes me wince and squirm in pain, it feels like I still have his fingers inside me, I want to throw up. I completely gave in. I didn’t struggle when he lowered my pants, and I even took off one of my shoes to free my leg and spread my thighs wider. I was hoping that would make penetration hurt less. Poor idiot, you’re dreaming, you’re high.[7] Gandhi recommended that Indian women hold their breath when they were raped by the people of what would be known as Pakistan during the huge migrations that followed independence. Non-violence. I didn’t hold my breath. I held in my screams, screams from how much it hurt but the knife was there, right there. Unforgettable. Irreversible. Branded. Forgive and forget? Not this. Not this pain. A fire poker deep inside you. Every back-and-forth like a thrust of the knife and the bastard won’t come. His eyes. His eyes in my eyes. He doesn’t say a word. I am in the tomb, I am Cain, and the eye is watching me. All I see are his eyes. I remember the shape of his veins, the size of his iris so well I could draw them. Finally, I can feel that he’s about to come. His dick swells, he comes, he belches. Still not a word. Not even “you like that, don’t you, you slut?” Nothing. It’s over. He pulls out, stands up, pulls up his underwear and his pants. He folds up his knife, takes my Velib’ and leaves. He’s gone. It’s over. I’m alive. My cowardice paid off. I breathe in and out, my heart is beating, and I’m in pain. Pain is life. Look, he didn’t even take my bag. It’s silly but it makes me happy. My brain keeps busy: of course, I was just raped, but the important thing is that I still have my handbag. It’s nothing. You know, time goes by, it’s nothing.[8]  I won’t have to get new papers, I won’t have to freeze my credit card, isn’t life great? Aw, shit, it’s not, I’ll have to pay the security for the stolen Velib’. A rape and a 150 euro fine, putting them on the same level in this deserted tunnel, as two punishments, equally severe, retribution for having believed that my life was miserable, all this in response to the spoiled dinner and my desperately dry womb. I was learning that life could be infinitely more cruel than people imagine.

I don’t know how long I stayed lying in that tunnel. I wasn’t lying there, no, I was curled up in a ball. I can still see myself, prone, bruised. He left. It’s over. I pull my pants up. He tore my panties. I’m in pain. It hurts. I’m ashamed. The disgrace is seeping out between my legs. The smell makes me nauseous. I am filthy, soiled, stained, untouchable. I’m disgusting. He disgusts me. This tunnel disgusts me. But I’m relieved. I am alive. I’m breathing. I breathe in. I breathe out. My heart is beating. I’m shaking. I sigh. I cry. I vomit. My dinner, my bile, my fear, I throw it all up. And still nobody in this tunnel. Nobody. I stand up. I can’t stay up. I stand up again. That’s it. I stagger along. I am standing. I walk. Leave this tunnel. Call Antoine. Have him come get me, let me seek shelter in his arms. No, it’s too early, I don’t want him to see me in this state. “Hi honey, I just got raped, can you come pick me up?” No. No way. I have to forget. I have to wash myself off. That’s it, wash myself off. No, first I have to go to the cops. I have to file a complaint. I have to describe him, have them draw a composite, have to do everything I can to make sure they find him. Have him tried, locked up, chemically sterilized, then make him get raped, too, in the showers of la Santé, of Fresnes, of Les Baumettes or elsewhere.

[1] Louis Chedid, La belle.
[2]
Jean-Louis Aubert, Temps à nouveau.
[3]
AC/DC.
[4]
Barbara, Ma plus belle histoire d’amour.
[5]
The Cure, Siamese Twins.
[6]
Zebda.
[7]
Serge Gainsbourg, Aéroplanes.
[8]
Julien Clerc, Ce n’est rien.