Leslie Kaplan

translated from French by Bernard Hœpffner

—No hurry, I told you not to hurry, Damien was saying to Pierre.

Quiet, Damien was saying.

Pierre wasn't answering.

—Fourth floor, Damien was saying. You're going too fast. Quiet.

Pierre wasn't answering. Damien started to whistle under his breath.

No hurry, I told you. We're almost there.

They were going down. Damien was whistling, Pierre not saying a word.

—We're almost there, said Damien again. We're outside.

Outside, he repeated while pushing the big door.

We're in the street, said Damien. Come on, said Damien. Let's go.

—I'm coming with you, said Pierre.

There was a moment of silence.

—We'd said that I would walk up to the square, said Damien. And that you would go along the boulevard.

—I know, said Pierre without moving. I know.

But I'm coming with you.

Damien shrugged.

They walked up the Rue Delambre together, arrived Place Edgar-Quinet.

The green mouth of the métro, in and out, people. Vague hustle and bustle, it is six p.m.

Quite a crowd on the terraces. The tables of the cafés, round and white, friendly.

The chairs, they're like women, thought Pierre. Sitting women. Like legs, feet. Arms, knees.

He looked away, gazed at the sky.

Very blue sky, double row of trees, beginning of spring. The big branches, the leaves.

Further on, the wall of the cemetery, its silent surface.

—Let's sit down, said Damien looking at Pierre.

Pierre looked vacant.

Damien put a hand on his shoulder.

—Everything went off perfectly well.

Nice day, the sky is blue. And, said Damien, we're the best.

Pierre said nothing.

—Listen, went on Damien, everything went off perfectly well.

Pierre didn't move.

—I know why you're afraid, said Damien after a while.

Pierre looked at him with fury.

—You're afraid, said Damien, because you think you're going to have nightmares.

You think you're going to see her, at night.

Pierre shook his head. Then he started to laugh.

—And you, said Pierre, you won't see her?

—I don't know, said Damien with seriousness. I don't know.

But if I see her, added Damien, I'll know it's a dream.

It's happened to me before. I'm dreaming and I know at the same time that it's a dream. I had a dream last night, I often have this dream, I was running, running, I came to a door, it was closed, I wanted to open it, I couldn't, I tried, I tried to break it, I was shaking it, I started to scream, Open it, open it, there was a laugh, a horrible laugh, the most horrible laugh, it was a laugh that started very small, very small, and it went on louder and louder, it was taking more and more space. It was as if I was struggling inside this laugh.

But all the time I knew it was a dream.

Damien shook his head.

I was afraid, said Damien, but—

—But what, said Pierre.

—Afterwards, you stop thinking about it, said Damien and he shrugged his shoulders.

—But now it's different, said Pierre with violence.

—Why, said Damien.

—Because she's bound to come back, said Pierre, he looked into Damien's eyes.

—Why, Damien said again with deliberate slowness.

—Because she has nowhere else to go, said Pierre, the words seemed to be coming out on their own.

You do come up with such stupid shit, said Damien, exasperated.

There was a silence. Damien looked at Pierre.

—She was a whore, said Damien. Period.

—We didn't know her, said Pierre.

—That's just it, said Damien. She was a whore, period, said Damien.

After that, they stopped speaking. They were sitting down at a table and drinking, Damien a coke, Pierre a coffee.

Pierre was thinking about the cemetery. He didn't want to, but nevertheless, he was thinking about it.

The cemetery, he could see it, and he could see the silence. Pierre had the feeling that the air, around him, was a shrinking curtain. Something was closing, closing down.

Damien was watching people go by. Suddenly he said, Come on let's go home, and he got up. Pierre also got up.

They went to their respective homes.


When Damien arrived home, he lived boulevard Raspail, his mother was getting dinner ready in the kitchen. He kissed her, and at the same time he got a whiff of her perfume, of the dinner. In his room, he tried to work, he had done nothing for the next day, he couldn't concentrate.

At the table, the father was eating, smiling, engrossed. Damien was thinking of the staircase rue Delambre. He could see himself going down, the steps one after the other, the landings, he could hear himself whistling.

The mother was chattering, anxious, pretty.

Why is she chattering, Damien asked himself suddenly, what's the matter with her, that she chatters like that, how she chatters, Damien asked himself, how they all chatter, what's the point of all this chatter.

Pass me the dish, said Damien very quickly, pass me the salt, pass me the salad, pass me the bread, said Damien.

His mother would stop talking, would pass, take back.

When she passed him the cheese the father lifted his eyes from his plate and said, laughing. Stop passing him everything. The mother also laughed.

After dinner Damien did the washing up with his mother, soapy water, bubbles, perfume.

What about a walk? asked the mother.

They went for a walk, the night was soft, soft, almost warm. A very clear, transparent darkness, a lot of people out. When they came back Damien went to bed and fell asleep immediately.


In Pierre's home, shouts, screams. The usual.

He spoke a little with his sister Joëlle, helped her with her history lesson, went out to buy bread and pasta, watched television, ate rapidly and locked himself in his room. He read, first out of restlessness, then interest, and only fell asleep in the small hours.


When Damien woke up, he was steeped in a dream he had just had, a big white dream, a transparent cloud in the midst of which he seemed to have been struggling all night, or maybe only just before waking up, an empty dream which called nothing to his mind, absolutely nothing, except an unpleasant impression. He was in a bad mood while getting dressed. As he put on his sweater he remembered the sharp pain that had recently been caused by a splinter stuck close to a nail, the right index finger. Whitlow, his mother had said. I know, his mother had said, it's a teensy-weensy splinter. But it's very painful.


Pierre did not dream. Or rather, he refused to dream, he spent all his sleeping time saying to himself, I am not dreaming, I shall not dream, I refuse to dream. Naturally, he got up exhausted, dead.


In the morning at school Pierre was broody. Damien, wild, told him he had decided to create havoc during Martin's class, his words.

Pierre shrugged his shoulders. You mean you're going to try, said Pierre. You can but try, said Pierre, with emphatic irony. Then he said:

—After all these months, you should know that one doesn't create havoc at Alice's.

—Don't call her Alice, said Damien automatically, it's not her name.

—I can call her what I want, said Pierre.


In Madame Martin's philosophy class, studious, passionate atmosphere. Throughout the year a persistent tension had reigned, still reigned, a highly charged, calm atmosphere, certainly due to the fact that Madame Martin was very beautiful, blond and full of curves, while at the same time rather the perfect teacher, exacting, scrupulous, simple. The students adored her, the boys in love, the girls too, and great success at graduation at the end of the year.

She'd asked for commentaries on a sentence by Hannah Arendt, "Men and not Man live on the earth", quite a few students had put their name down, comments, discussions.

Damien raised his hand and, when asked to speak, declared that men or Man… possibly, possibly, but there were things that women could not understand.

He was told that this was beside the point.

He persisted. Women, said Damien, were different from men.

A few girls' hands were raised, some boys sniggered.

—So, Damien, why don't you tell us about your women, said Madame Martin, smilingly.

Damien felt an immense fury welling up inside him, unjustified by the discussion, his skin was tingling, he was seeing red.

Besides, Madame Martin was wearing a very fetching red sweater.

Quick, vivid, golden hair like in a film, and her voice, steady, precise.

She is too free, this phrase crossed Damien's mind, but what he meant by that, he didn't know.

Madame Martin had a reputation for rigour and for success, "she leads her class to graduation", some parents tried by any mean to have their son or their daughter in her class. So, "too free"?

If anyone had asked him, Damien, what would he have said? Maybe he wouldn't have said anything, couldn't have said anything, couldn't have found anything to say. Or maybe he would have simply repeated the thought that had crossed his mind, which he didn't understand, she is too free, I can't stand her, she's unbearably free. "Unbearably free", these two words would have summarized what he felt.

But what did it mean? A promiscuity?

Nothing to show that Madame Martin, who had a husband, he sometimes came to pick her up, lived in any sort of promiscuity, skirt to the knees, dark stockings, flat heels.

Or maybe, promiscuity in ideas?

She didn't sleep with any old idea, she was rather strict, rational and demonstrative, logical.

Free, a free woman, free in her thinking, but what was it, a woman free in her thinking, could a woman think everything, everything about him, Damien, for example, what may have been unbearable was precisely to think exactly this, that a woman might think about him something that he himself would never have thought?

Or that she might think of anything, the stars, the planets, the galaxies, unbearable that her unbounded thoughts might lead her to a place that he himself, Damien, could not anticipate, that was it, but far, far away from him?

Damien often, almost without knowing it, hated Madame Martin, he had the impression, it was more than an impression, it was an image coming from deep within his head, he could see it, this image: Madame Martin, detached from him, far from him, studying him from a distance, no, no, he didn't want to, but he could see her, she stepped back, she considered him, no, no, out of the question. Damien would never have said, a woman must remain at home, a woman cannot undertake studies, but deep down, as if muffled, he possibly hated that she had her own unknown, unpredictable thoughts.

—Women are different from men, said Damien.

—Undoubtedly, said Madame Martin.

—And it's not only the body, said Damien.

—But? said Madame Martin.

—A woman, said Damien, does not think like a man. She cannot. That's how it is. She's different.

Immediately a hubbub rose in the classroom. Exclamations, booing. The girls, the boys.

Damien laughed.

—But I like differences, said Damien.

Men do not think like women, anyway. It isn't a question of superiority or inferiority. Men, women. Neither superior, nor inferior.

Why are you giving me a funny look, said Damien while bursting out with laughter, she's giving me a funny look, he was talking to his neighbour, pointing to a girl who had turned round to look at him.

—I am not giving you a funny look, said Claudine, a small round girl with glasses and her hair in bunches, but you get on my nerves, the way you talk gets on my nerves.

—What's the matter with the way I talk, said Damien.

—I don't know, said Claudine.

—Some people are afraid of differences, said Damien. Some people are afraid to indicate, or to underline, differences. Not me. They are afraid because it wouldn't be, said Damien, as you said the other day, he was speaking to Madame Martin, it wouldn't be "politically correct" to speak of differences. So I, for one, am not afraid.

And, said Damien, triumphant, men, women, Whites, Blacks, we are all part of the human race. I am not a racist. On the contrary, I am very interested in differences.

Women, I adore women, precisely because I don't understand them.

As it happened, the whole class, which is to say all those who took part in the debate, almost the whole class, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The hubbub developed. Madame Martin asked for silence. Hands were raised.

—But, but you do agree with what I'm saying, do you or don't you, said Damien, calm and smiling. Does the word "woman" designate another reality than the word "man", yes or no.

—Reality, what is it, asked Thomas, who was sitting right behind Damien.

What does your reality encompass? How far does it go?

—There are people who are afraid of differences, repeated Damien and there are people who are afraid of their own fear of differences, so they say there are no differences.

But there are differences. That's reality.

—What you're saying is, there are those "who will never understand Racine", said Thomas brutally. They had studied Maurras for a while in class.

—Yes, that's it, said Damien, but I don't say they are inferior or superior. Some people will never understand Racine, and some people will never understand African culture.

Ahhhs, and Ohhhs. Everyone excited, dissatisfied.

Pierre did not say anything. Set against everything.

Thomas said:

—There are given differences, being born here or there, man or woman, with rich parents or with poor parents. But we're not reduced, limited to that.

—Develop your idea, Thomas, said Madame Martin.

—Well, said Thomas, feeling encouraged, when a man speaks to a woman, or an African with a European, even if they speak from different points of view, even if they start from different points of view, they can, by speaking, by exchanging words, in their dialogue, reach common points of view. Or find new differences, for that matter. Differences which didn't exist at the beginning. This is what takes place in Plato's dialogues, you explained it to us, he turned towards Madame Martin.

If I speak with you, Thomas said all of a sudden to Damien, it is not to have the last word, it is to speak with you. But as far as you're concerned, I feel that you always want to have the last word.

—Speaking, speaking, said Damien.

—Speaking with someone, said Tomas, who did not manage to go further.

Damien laughed.

—Speaking, what good does it do to you? said Damien.

—Speaking with someone, it helps you to hear a point of view that you hadn't foreseen, said Claudine, who got up and sat down with pure satisfaction.

—Very good, Claudine, approved Madame Martin.

—When you speak with someone, pursued Thomas, he was following his idea, it is not only to say what you already know, you express differences, you also invent them, you discover them.

—I never said the contrary, said Damien while shrugging his shoulders.

—No, you didn't say the contrary, but what I said, you didn't say it, said Thomas.

—Whatever, said Damien.

—You underline the differences that are given once and for all, the reality, as you say. A woman is like this, a man is like that. Africans, Europeans. You put people into boxes, even if you say that you're interested in the different boxes. But what's interesting is also what people invent by using what they are. Something new, said Thomas. "What do I do with what was done to me", as was said by I don't know whom, said Thomas.

—Whatever, said Damien again.

—In the philosophy class you're not allowed to say whatever, said Claudine with her most suave voice.

Damien felt like strangling her.