by Nina Bouraoui
Translated by Lara Vergnaud
Bruno Kerjen was sure that nothing important had preceded him and that nothing important would come after him. That his life wasn’t taking place between two points, with a beginning and an end, like each of our lives, but that it looked like a circle: the past encompassed the future. He had just turned thirty-five and harbored premonitions of a catastrophe without knowing its date or make-up. He had never been able to access the world he imagined as a child. The real world was made up of women and men who looked like him, who could be replaced without anyone noticing that this one was different, that that one was gone. For this reason he didn’t vote. He was neither left wing nor right wing. None of the extremist parties attracted him, convinced as he was that politicians did not take into account people like him, the quasi-invisible individual, a miniscule part of a Whole that some call “the masses” because of its volume. They were numerous and their numbers fated to increase.
For the past ten years Bruno Kerjen had attached small copper filaments to small chips, which were themselves welded to a plate that would then be attached to a transformer, and integrated into the interior of a television, computer or telephone box. These small movements with small things made him feel like he was participating in a collective project, without having to put up with anyone else’s constraints: it entailed connecting people, the sole pleasure that he gained from a mindless occupation that had more to do with practice than science.
Bruno Kerjen worked for Supelec, one of the last French companies active on the electronic components market. Preoccupied with a job well done, he neither loved nor hated his profession, executing it more out of duty than passion.
He compared himself to a fish that swims back up the current with the other fish, following the flow that is leading it to a closed, black water system. The current might be the worst current out there but, reluctant to stand out, he prefers to be included rather than remove himself: it’s best to accept it and attain the most tranquility possible and not endanger his reassuring habits. A small dot among other dots is better than a small dot lost in space and, even if his solitude persisted, he held on to the illusion that it was shared with others like him, neither good nor bad, neither talented nor idiotic, molded in the mundane form put forth by a mundane existence: wake up to eat up.
One part of his salary was used to pay back loans from credit agencies, which had allowed him to buy an LCD screen and a dishwasher, objects that he could have gone without in case of force majeure, but necessary to the amelioration of his daily life. The other part covered his rent, his food, his clothes, his rare leisure activities. He didn’t travel much, owned neither a car nor a scooter, took the train from Vitry where he lived, then the RER until the Porte d’Italie stop.
Good or bad, Bruno Kerjen didn’t like surprises, and led an existence that was meant to keep him on the course that had been plotted out over the years despite himself, and which he had eventually accepted, mirroring the electronic circuit boards that he assembled according to the requisite schematic that ensured the machine’s correct operation.
He limited, as much as he could, his emotions. Nothing could disrupt the system he had created, a system that wasn’t good but which worked. He wouldn’t change his position, a non-position that he judged superior to certain others: “A lousy hell of a life but a life that functions nonetheless.”
There was always worse off than oneself. And when on his thirty-fifth birthday he had had the foreboding of a catastrophe, a foreboding that transformed into certainty, he considered it to be a simple piece of information to be added to the rest, without seeking to explain its cause, without fearing its consequences.
His existence had become habit. He made use of it like so many others had done before, and would after him. Sliding along the rails, in one direction then another, with the time that passed as the sole point of reference, he had nothing that was unique, and no one offered him anything unique.
He had left his youth behind, occupied the intermediary period before a more mature age that would see his faculties diminish. He still had all his strength, benefited from a good constitution, equivalent health, height greater than the average French man, adequate musculature that wasn’t the result of any particular effort. Square face, blue eyes, chestnut brown hair that he thought about shaving before it disappeared completely, he found himself neither handsome nor ugly, neither attractive nor repellent. Bruno Kerjen was neither handsome nor ugly, neither attractive nor repellent.
He had renounced all lasting relationships. No woman was going to find a place in his life, which he compared to a piece of machinery. A single person in the center of the aforementioned machinery was plenty sufficient. He merely had to look after himself, which, in a certain manner, was the only kind of freedom existence proposed to him. He didn’t love himself, any more than he hated himself. He was like a tool that opened up several possibilities – work, housing, food, rest, trips to Saint-Servan to visit his mother, who lived in his childhood home composed of one floor and a recently closed addition: the small convenience store that his parents used to run before his father died.
He had abandoned the standard academic curriculum at the age of fifteen in order to orient himself towards a professional track, choosing electricity, the subject in which he would get his diploma. He didn’t have any special ambition other than to leave his hometown, the only way to avoid taking on his parents’ business, which, he was sure of it, had ended up killing his father.
Bruno Kerjen didn’t believe in chance but his childhood was marked by a number of coincidences that led him down the path to Supelec, a path that seemed to him to have been plotted in advance when he summarized the key events: military service, logistics division, repairs for individuals, a move to Fougères near the town of Rennes, integration into a Supelec branch, a so-called economic transfer to the headquarters at the Porte d’Italie in Paris.
Aware of the spectacular crisis facing his country and the rest of the world, he didn’t complain. He let himself be pushed around by things that followed an order against which he couldn’t resist. Life decided for him and, even if he wasn’t the most fulfilled man around, he considered himself luckier than some, “shouldn’t complain for fuck’s sake, never, some people die with their mouths still open, in the cold, but that’s not my case, or at least not yet, so I’ll shut my trap, and I’ll keep going, I’ll keep going.”
He lacked faith. He was born that way, which meant that he didn’t hope for a better life either. We came from the ground, we will return to the ground, that or fire. Life was sinking towards a somber end: the limit, unequal, to the time allotted each of us. He too would have his final hour. Oblivion would act like a blanket of sand. There was nothing before, there will be nothing after. A certainty confirmed during his father’s wake as he waited beside the casket for a sign, a noise, a spark, a proof of passage from one state to the other, but “nothing at all, nothing happened, not even a goddamn breath that could have scared everybody stiff.”
He hadn’t felt anything either, accustomed to accepting the fate in store for him. What had to happen happened or would eventually happen. There was nothing to be done about it, proof of nature’s supremacy over man. The fight was lost from the beginning and if a force had to exist, it wasn’t on his side. He had neither encountered nor experienced it.
His rare decisions looked like domino constructions. One piece would fall, setting off the others and so on. There wasn’t any power, either human or divine, but a group of rules that one needed to obey to ensure his or her survival. Only love would have been able to reroute the flow of events but he barely believed in it: not among men in general, not in one particular person. His orgasms were solitary, out of boredom. They were part of his rituals, eat, drink, sleep, and he accorded no significance to them, other than the quick pleasure they provided him, a pleasure that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Bruno Kerjen dreaded bodily contact on account of the smell, preferring the telephone to the prostitutes strolling along the edge of the highway. He had his fetish numbers, allowing himself to be carried away by stories each one dumber than the rest, but which had the merit of making him come in record time.
He sometimes thought about the possibility of another life, contaminated by the images of a perfect world showcased by advertisements. So, he would imagine himself married, two kids (preferably a girl and a boy), a dog, owner of a home in the suburbs with an automated gate and a front lawn, distinctive signs, in his mind, of the superior class to which he belonged. He didn’t consider this to be a model of happiness but an alternative to his own existence and the security that he drew from it.
When he calculated the amount of costs and preoccupations that such a life would have entailed, loans, education, upkeep, he rejoiced in his bachelorhood, his life savings, an account in which he deposited money as often as he could at a maximum of thirty euros per month, a life insurance policy worth five thousand euros that he took out solely for his mother in case something happened to him, a policy that covered what you would call “a stroke of bad luck.” He was similarly pleased with his rent-stabilized one bedroom apartment on the sixth floor with an elevator, with his balcony, with his view of the canola fields that contrasted with the low-rise buildings looming in the distance like cement monsters, massive, closed blocks through which even light seemed unable to pass. The fields oddly connected him to his childhood, when he used to hitch-hike from Saint-Servan to the cliffs in La Varde, the site of bunkers from the last world war, inside of which he had one day discovered a fragment of shrapnel, making him think that he was witness to a history greater than his own.
When he thought about his childhood he didn’t feel any real sadness apart that for time that passes and unravels. He had kept several photographs of the convenience store in an envelope, which he would look at from time to time the way someone consults the archives of a family he or she barely recognizes. His conclusion was frank, hard, he had missed out on things without them leaving a trace.
He wasn’t convinced of his father’s love in the same way he wasn’t convinced of his own for the latter. He had been taught to repress his emotions, which would eventually desert him somewhat. He held on to the gentlest images of his mother before feeling, as an adult, a kind of repulsion that he had had a hard time accepting and understanding; a mother that he forced himself to see several times a year, more out of guilt than affection. The only son, he had learned to entertain himself alone, buried in the adventures of Lieutenant Blueberry, a hero whom he looked nothing like but who opened the doors of his bedroom to another world that people still called Great America.
His adolescent memories were different. Without creating regret, they nonetheless sowed a few doubts in him, whose importance he minimized in order to protect himself: partying at the Penelope, the region’s night club, moped races (blue-gray Peugeot 102) along the barrage in La Rance, all-nighters, Marlène, and a blistering realization: his life, barely begun, was already a near complete failure.
Bruno Kerjen enrolled in the professional high school of Rochebonne the year he turned fifteen. He had been placed in class A8, mechanical-electrical section. Three years of study and internships in small to medium companies would culminate in a diploma, one that the military service honored, which allowed him to cut his teeth for one year in northern Germany, as the deputy responsible for circuit and joints maintenance. He didn’t harbor any traumatic memories of his service as did so many others before him, working in garrison hangers that filled up at night with recruits burnt out by cold, hunger and anger. He didn’t waste any time, he learned a trade, refining his attention to detail, his patience and his capacity to make decisions alone without fear of making a mistake or being reprimanded. The judgment of others was important to him and he ensured his peace of mind by a job always well done, the only way for him to remain connected to a reality that had sometimes escaped him during his last year of study at the technical school.
The grades weren’t overcrowded, and the courses were well defined as were the types of students that attended them. The boys were on the mechanical or masonry-plumbing tracks, the girls in esthetic apprenticeships or training in the service industries, a broad designation whose injustice nobody, at the end of the day, paid much attention to.
Mentalities hadn’t evolved, he had nothing against women, judging them equal to men whom he didn’t think much about either, “men or women, there are bitches and sons of bitches everywhere, what’s important is knowing how to avoid them, that’s what life’s all about: a slalom race between the assholes. And this life is destructive enough as is so it’s best to avoid those trying to keep your head under water.”
Everyone was navigating with the same boat, you had to save your own skin from certain shipwreck or at least protect it as long as possible even if nobody could decide his or her destiny. Nobody except Marlène, he had often thought.
They met in the high school hallways, one morning when they were both late, running up the stairs, she nearly twisted her ankle, because of her heels, a detail that he had retained because it excited him. The girls at the technical school wore slacks, ugly sweaters, flat shoes or sneakers, for comfort. They would be beautiful and affected later on, in an institute, a restaurant or at the front desk of a company. For the time being, they were learning, remained “frumpy and unfuckable in the end.”
Marlène stood a notch taller than everyone else, gifted with a power denied Bruno Kerjen: seduction. Because she had to learn a real trade before beginning a life she hoped would be grand and out of the ordinary, Marlène was following the Hair Styling/Manicure track but her future lay elsewhere, far away from this school of halfwits that she had to attend despite herself, since her mother ran a salon in Rothéneuf, a little village situated not too far from the coast five miles from Saint-Mali. She had filled in as a replacement there a few times but was aiming higher, much higher, attracted by fashion and the movie industry, sure that destiny would swing in her favor as soon as she left her environment. Someone was waiting for her somewhere. One day, they would hear all about Marlène. For the time being she obeyed her family, while modeling on the side, which hinted at a kind of clandestine life that fascinated Bruno. They agreed on one subject: the desire for freedom.
But Bruno didn’t want to be completely free. He remained within his limits. They reassured him. Freedom didn’t attract him because it didn’t exist. Freedom was an idea, nothing more, nothing less. You’ll always be a prisoner, of somebody else, of your past, of your identity, of your social condition. Other people would always be there to remind him of that. And he didn’t like to confront others in the same way that he had never resisted his father’s fits of violence for which he found no explanation if not the excess of alcohol and the fatigue inflicted by his profession, standing up behind a bar hearing the grumblings of local drunks. Only the trees, the waves, the clouds were free, not men.
Bruno Kerjen didn’t hope for a better life elsewhere but was certain that his wouldn’t be worse than that of his parents, “two sad old people who missed out on things even if they had a roof over their heads and something to eat every day. But two sad old sacks all the same.” He wanted to stay his course, which didn’t represent the ideal, but rather the assurance – even if you can never be sure of anything – of owing nothing to no one, of having tried on your own, of being an adult worthy of the term. His parents had worked hard, he would do the same but in another town, a way for him not to be judged, not by his father not by anyone. He aspired to a small life free of drama, alone or with company, but preferably alone. Because if men weren’t free and even less so equal, he also knew that they remained alone, from the womb to the grave.
The day they met, Marlène was wearing a short plaid skirt, colored red, a tight sweater that allowed part of her lace bra to peek out, nude stockings that Bruno had imagined were held up by two clasps like in the pornographic fantasies that haunted him.
He was in the last year of his apprenticeship, Marlène was beginning her Hair Styling/Manicure training and, despite their three-year age gap, he felt inferior to her, inexperienced.
She was one of the girls he had already come across on the Penelope dance floor, whose folly and indifference he feared, “a group of sluts, not one to raise the bar, not one to give me a blow job either.” This used to bother him, no longer did. It was this kind of girl that eventually sealed shut his prison. With her nail polish, her lips painted red, her mascara applied in heaps that gave her the look of a demented doll, her ensembles and her first name that wasn’t her own, Marlène had in her, on her skin, and maybe even beneath her flesh, the flaw of normality which she would never be able to rectify.
Marlène was a volcano, and that morning, seated at his work station, fitting nuts and filaments, he had made himself a promise not to trust her, a promise, that, he already knew, would be difficult to keep, “this girl’s the devil, she’s the fucking devil personified.”
Marlène had fallen from the heavens into the technical school, though said heavens had more to do with hell, edging paradise into a distant land upon which she would never tread. She triggered a wave of hate among the other students in her grade and a crazy obsession among the boys and men at the school, teachers included.
Though little disposed to nostalgia, every image of Marlène had remained in his memory, as if she was meant to one day become a part of his life again, to come back to him even though she had never belonged to him. When he thought about her, everything resurfaced intact, rescued from the twenty years that had gone by: her clothes, her voice, the color of her hair, the back and forth moped rides when he used to take her home, her way of whispering to him – “so you still believe in Santa Clause, my sweet Bruno?”, her breasts, her thighs, her increasingly vulgar words that she chose as much to shock him as to affirm herself, “I’m wet today Bruno, I’m so wet, who will be my fireman, huh, you know who, silly boy. Who’s going to put out the fire in Marlène’s pants, tell me who Bruno, you know everything right?”
Marlène was stronger than him, stronger than all the men who used to turn to look at her as she walked by, stronger than all those backward hicks, which included him, whose somewhat coarse kindness she nonetheless appreciated, the way she might have done with an animal. And even if he didn’t believe it, because she could very well see in his eyes that he didn’t believe it, she would have, in one way or another, a destiny. That’s what linked him to her, “destiny,” a word that she venerated more than anything, saddling it with a quasi-mystical meaning, comparing herself to her idols, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Marlène Dietrich whose name she had borrowed, without ever revealing her own, which had to be, according to Bruno, as mundane as the small lives they were leading in this Brittany dump, as she used to say. For him, destiny had more to do with nothingness or tragedy than glory and he found himself dreading his new friend’s fate, which he foresaw as dark and broken.
He had spent the last year of his training scrutinizing her, waiting for her, listening to her. Marlène always had a broken heart but neither him nor anybody else saw the lovers she alluded to like shooting stars, Tanguy the police chief, Edmond the father of two, Jacques le Parigot a real Joe blow who stayed in Paramé every summer in one of the villas on the ocean front that were only used during long vacations by well-to-do city dwellers who, he used to think, came to break their girls’ hearts just for the summer.
That year, Bruno Kerjen had had the feeling he was slipping away from his reservations and his refusals, from what he thought he knew about himself. Marlène had made a mess of his convictions. She had chipped not a path but a minuscule crack that he feared he would see grow larger. He refused to fall in love and he began to submit. He refused to experience desire and he was consumed by it. When he neared the house in Saint-Servan on his gray-blue 102, Marlène giving him a hard-on like no one else, he had but one urgency: to unload the force straining his belly, and return to the solitude that protected him.
His diploma was his priority. Military service the first step towards another life, different than the one he had always known, his parents’ convenience store, the lack of a horizon despite the ocean, the tedium. He would never feature in Marlène’s love triangles, she who, from the beginning, had warned him: “What’s great about being with you Bruno, is that I never think about sex.”
He vowed never to digress from his choices, despite one moment that drove him nearly mad. Marlène had told him to come to the salon one day for a free cut because she owed him that much. He felt the fire take hold from his skull to his belly when she ran the stream of water over the back of his neck, his head, his forehead, when she caressed the skin on his face thanks to the foam dripping like small lukewarm snowflakes. He thought he was going to explode when he felt her chest against the back of his neck, then her stomach so close to his mouth. He did everything to hold himself back when she slid the razor blade across each temple. He had closed his eyes when he felt her breath, which he would have been able to recognize among all others just like her voice that carried little but said all the words that he had never heard until then, “Listen buddy, in life you have to chart your course, and then you follow it, you don’t ever deviate from it. And do you know why you should never deviate? Because the two sides on either side, well they’re a ravine. So either you chart a course or you get your face smashed in.”
Bruno Kerjen had narrowly obtained his diploma but he obtained it all the same. He blamed himself for slacking off without blaming Marlène, who had done nothing but reveal his weaknesses, “it’s stupid to be had by your own dick, really stupid.” He enrolled faster than his any of his peers in the military’s obligatory three-day examination period before joining a contingent of the second Bernem division without saying goodbye to his friend, who, he would learn at his return, had left the region.
Bruno Kerjen thought the men were there to save him from women and that he would know how to save himself from the men, from their savage appetites for violence that he didn’t share, “just a bunch of dickheads punching each another, it makes me want to puke, they’re no better than chicks, worse even, they don’t even have a set of tits to get you going.” He dreamt of a so-called blank existence, without complication, that followed a path that would have an end, neither fearing nor waiting for this end that couldn’t be worse than its debut. He would concentrate his energy on his work, spending his year of military service learning and perfecting the skills that he would put into practice as soon as he was out, in Saint-Servan then in Fougères, recommended by one of his clients to one of the Supelec branches, which would one day offer him the possibility to go even farther away from his birthplace, to a city, Paris, that had never inspired him but that would ensure his anonymity.