Fiction | The Dropout by Emmanuelle Pagano

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    Emmanuelle Pagano


    The Dropout


    I recognised you straight away, even from behind, from the way you walk: it makes you look slightly unbalanced or ruffled. You don’t limp, exactly, or really look annoyed, just folded, a bit wonky. I stopped. You turned round and I saw your name badge before I even looked at your face. It was you, no doubt about it. You were folding away your face as though you wanted to hide it. You got in the car without resisting, but then why would you have resisted? You were hitchhiking, I stopped and you were very confused, not even recognising me. Why would you have resisted? You didn’t look at me and you were trying to hide your wrinkled, troubled, trembling face, so how could you have recognised me?

    You got in, fastened your seat belt and, very gingerly, as though it hurt to do so, unfolded yourself. You drew your face out of your body and looked at me. You stared right at me and I could see in your eyes that my face reminded you of something, but what? You couldn’t place me; you saw me without recognising me. You’d seen my face somewhere and here it was now in front of you, in front of you and elsewhere in an elusive memory, my recognised but unrecognised face, my face on the tip of your tongue. You smiled as if to thank me.

    It was you, first of all; it was you we didn’t recognise. Not just then, in the evening by the side of the road, hitchhiking, but earlier, all afternoon at the wedding. Even I didn’t recognise you. How could I have recognised you? You looked so unlike me, and yet we used to look so alike. Well no, not you, my cousin, my cousin and I were so alike. She and I were like almost twins, offbeat twins. My cousin is a bit younger than me, but only by a few days, and a bit shorter too.

    I remember a game we played as children, a game just for us that only we could play, my cousin and I. We would carefully set up mirrors in just the right place in the bathroom so that we could see only our profiles in them. My cousin’s face would be just below mine like a repetition – not really a reflection, more of a stuttering image. Her face, the same, my face, just below itself, repeated, doubled. We called the game ‘drunken mirrors’.

    There was no way I could have recognised you because you weren’t her, clearly. Despite your badge with her name on it, my cousin’s name, you weren’t her. Nobody understood, not even me. We understood that you weren’t her but we didn’t understand what you were doing there or who you were. We didn’t try to understand. My cousin hadn’t turned up, maybe because of some kind of delay, and you were there, wearing her name on a badge. My cousin didn’t play by the rules: if you’re delayed, you warn people, and if you’re not coming, you don’t just drop out, you cancel. A few people always cancel before a wedding, even right at the last minute. It’s very annoying but you cope, you juggle the seating plan, move people around, put them on different tables, make sure men and women are evenly distributed. It’s very rude to drop out, and just as rude not to warn anyone of a delay. We were wondering whether my cousin might have had an accident when you began to draw attention to yourself. At first, this distracted us from our worrying, but then it threw us into a state of embarrassment that was much worse. We all thought, blinded as we are by our prejudices, that it was some kind of joke in poor taste, then we thought you must be a gatecrasher. Otherwise, why wear the badge? This tramp had stolen our name to eat, drink and party at our expense. Especially drink, we whispered among ourselves, because your ruined face was unmistakably that of an alcoholic. You’d seen the surname on a badge, my maiden name and my cousin’s too, and you’d chosen a first name at random, which happened to be my cousin’s. It’s a common first name. Still – and now I know, it seems so easy to understand; now I remember noticing straight away and rejecting the thought just as quickly – you didn’t drink a drop of alcohol, and with good reason.

    Why wear that great big badge? That was the first thing I asked when you got into my car, just after your thanks and your long stare, and before I even tried to find out where you were going. Why the badge? You replied in one long exhalation, so long that you almost seemed breathless, or unwilling to get your breath back, unwilling to stop talking. You replied in one long surge of words, your mouth trembling so I had trouble understanding you. You told, trembled, breathed the whole story of being ill and needing daily care.

    You need to go back to the diabetes clinic, where a nurse is expecting you for your dialysis tomorrow morning. You’re lost. You didn’t know, you still don’t know, how to manage all this. The clinic had sorted out your train journey but you’d had to leave much earlier than expected because in the end, actually, you weren’t invited to the wedding, so you didn’t know what to do or how to get back to the station by bus, with all that time to wait and then the bus and the train. And you couldn’t take an earlier train because the ticket can’t be refunded or exchanged, or something like that, you don’t know about that sort of thing, you go out so little, hardly ever. So you had the idea of hitchhiking but you weren’t sure if the clinic allowed that. In fact you hadn’t really thought it through. You’d left on a sudden impulse, or because you were angry, you can’t really remember, it was before, it was now, and it wasn’t such a good idea because, having left earlier, you were actually going to be late, you might even miss the train, the one you had to get in the evening, the one you were supposed to take in the first place, and you’d miss your dialysis in the morning, and if I could, oh, if I could take you to the station and lend you the money for the ticket, so as to get an earlier train, and not miss the evening one, or help you to change your ticket, it would really set your mind at rest. All I’d have to do would be give you my address and the clinic would reimburse me, they’re so nice, without them goodness knows…

    You’d stopped looking at me again. You were muddling up the timetables and the journeys, completely disorientated. You’d retracted your face into your body again. I promised to do all that, yes of course, absolutely. And then, only then, you breathed again, and you turned your face towards me. That face that we all, myself included, recognised immediately as that of an alcoholic, a face irrevocably marked and lined by drink, the skin puffy and criss-crossed by little burst blood vessels, greasy and covered in pimples, tiny beginnings of some kind of infection, and those pale eyes, red and faded, prematurely old. With those eyes you looked at me. You looked at me for so long I was afraid you’d recognise me, but it was an absent look, and from that absence tears sprang. You were crying hard now, crying with as much energy as you had put into trying to explain yourself a minute ago, but without words now, without anger. Your face is finally comprehensible, justified by the tears, its red, swollen skin explained by the crying. You smiled at me and I realised that you still hadn’t recognised me, perhaps because of the tears. You thanked me as you blew your nose clumsily with the tissue I’d just given you. I’m not completely sure it was a thank you but it was something like it, mixed up with an inelegant snort from your nose and mouth. Nothing you do is elegant, it must be said, and perhaps that was what made my daughter so very angry. Mother, look what she’s wearing, she kept saying, and I said, What about you, darling, look at the state you’re getting yourself into. It’s not so bad, pull yourself together. You took another deep breath, one more long breath, without trembling this time, and you said how kind I was, just like the people at the clinic, not like the bride.

    When you said that word I jumped, realising that in my haste I hadn’t taken the decorations off the car and, as though I’d spoken my thoughts aloud, as though you’d understood why I’d jumped, you smiled very discreetly, perhaps just to yourself, and asked me if, like you, I was on my way to or from a wedding. You looked embarrassed and said how beautifully dressed I was, but you just didn’t have the money. I replied that my daughter was getting married. So it was a very important day. You seemed reassured, saying that of course, if I was The Family. You didn’t say ‘family’ or ‘one of the family’ but ‘The Family’, stressing the words, but what about you, what were you if you weren’t The Family? You seemed reassured, as though my close relationship to the bride justified my get-up much more convincingly than social conventions, wealth, status or obvious spending power. Anyway, those people, the ones at the wedding you’d been to, or rather that you hadn’t been to, because they’d been so unbelievably rude, they may have been well dressed, like me (you said ‘like you’ with a little knowing look, as though you’d finally recognised me, but now I think about it, you can’t have), they may have been well dressed but they didn’t behave accordingly. You detached the word ‘accordingly’ as though touching it with only the tips of your fingers, the tip of your tongue, so as not to dirty yourself with it. There was no point dressing so nicely if they were only going to behave so coarsely. You had an invitation, you could show me if I didn’t believe you, you’d been invited to this wedding. You were angry again. I believed what you were saying.

    I couldn’t believe it.

    I had written the rough copy of that invitation myself, spending more time on it than on the others. I’d had to search for your address, and after several hours online I finally found some kind of PO Box address. My cousin has always been what people describe as eccentric and I wasn’t surprised by your address. I never imagined there’d be someone else with the same surname, because ours isn’t very common. It’s a surname we always thought of as prestigious and rare. An aristocratic name.

    You calmed down a bit and apologised for the inconvenience. You might be making me miss my daughter’s wedding, and that would be so bad, or perhaps you said look so bad, I couldn’t hear very well. You began to realise all of a sudden and you wanted me to let you out and leave you at the roadside. By the side of this big road. ‘That’s out of the question,’ I retorted, and I said it as a way of ending the conversation. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to ask you more and more things, but I didn’t want to say too much about me and my presence here, on this road, all dressed up for a wedding. I wanted to know more and more, I wanted to ask questions, so many questions, but I didn’t want to answer yours.

    What I want to know most of all is who you are. Tell me, who are you if you’re not my cousin?

    I’ll still have my doubts, you know, when I look at the wedding photos in a few days. It was when we were having the photos taken in front of the church that your behaviour started to arouse suspicion. You wanted to have your photo taken with the bride and groom and of course they refused. You thought it was a joke so you kept trying to squeeze into the side of the picture. I think you managed it a few times. I’ll look at them and wonder if you were actually my cousin, if she’d changed, if you were her, if you’d ended up looking not like me any more. If she’d fallen ill. But no, she’d have told me, she’d have called out to me and laughed: don’t you recognise me? She’d have laughed instead of insisting, as you did, that you were invited, that we couldn’t just throw you out like that. Instead of shouting without being able to show that you’d any link with the bride and groom. Because that’s the question we asked, to get rid of our intruder: we asked if you were related to one of them. Or perhaps you really were my cousin but you’d lost your mind and your memory. You’d lost your memory and looked at us uncomprehendingly, unable to answer that question except by showing your invitation, my invitation, the invitation I worked on for so long, the invitation I sent you, clutched in your hand like a permit. And we pushed you away, we gave your invitation back to you. It must be a mistake, Madame, don’t you see?

    You didn’t see. You made a scene, as my daughter said. She didn’t want this tramp ruining her wedding, this madwoman making a scene, and I was so ashamed that I hung back, not daring to do anything one way or the other. I watched from a distance. I was ashamed of my daughter’s behaviour and yours, and I was ashamed of our mistake, my mistake, because I was beginning to understand. I was too far away to read the address on the envelope but I understood, yes, I suddenly understood. I hung back and that’s why you didn’t recognise me when you got into the car.

    My only movement, my only impulse, my only decision was to leave, afterwards. I left the wedding after the drinks; I left my own daughter’s wedding and went off just like that. Just like that, those were the words in the text I got a few minutes ago, followed by a question mark. My daughter can be so rude when she loses the plot, despite being very prim most of the time. I left, just like that, without telling anyone, as they were going off to the venue where the grand meal for my daughter’s grand wedding was happening, is actually happening at this very moment. I didn’t follow the rest of the cars. I took the other road to try and find my cousin who isn’t my cousin, and now here we are, the two of us, in my car, my non-cousin and me. You and me.

    I look at you and I can’t believe what I’ve done: abandoned my daughter on her wedding day. I abandoned her for you, you who are nothing to me, you who aren’t one of the family, you whom I met, nonetheless, at my daughter’s wedding, you who weren’t invited, who were only invited because I made a mistake. My mistake invited itself, and you became guilty of accidental identity theft, I made you guilty of this theft. I’m still angry with you, though. You could have understood, or guessed. You didn’t know those people, so why would they have invited you to their wedding? Why did you accept the invitation? You should have turned it down. If you’d thought about it for two minutes you wouldn’t have got yourself into this mess, and you wouldn’t have got us into this mess, the pair of us. I resent you, you know, but here I am, and I’ll take you back to the station. I’ll make sure you get back to the clinic and I’ll return, unwillingly, to the festivities. To avoid any questions I’ll say my cousin dropped out at the last minute.

    I’ve still got that quiet, slick music in my head, the background music for the pre-dinner drinks. I’m surrounded by the murmurings of the CD, but is it that music, the background music at my daughter’s wedding, or the memory of some other music, perhaps a music that was all yours, a musical noise coming from you? It was you I was looking at during the drinks. I was watching you struggle. They’d taken you to one side and I didn’t say anything, just blended into the background music. I stood there, seeing the contrast between the unobtrusive music and your anger, the distance between the utter discretion of that soft music and your coarseness as you argued, wanting to stay with us and come to the meal. The music in my head is your stubbornness. Now you’re beating a rhythm on your leg with your finger, and I think you’re beating time to some unfamiliar music, unfamiliar like you, music that comes from you, an inner musical murmur. This murmur, this music, comes out of you only through the ends of your fingers.

    You kept asking questions during the drinks, like an uninhibited child brimming over with curiosity, wanting to know more than was seemly. You didn’t fit with the tone of our unspoken codes of behaviour, our gentility, or even with the tone of the background music so carefully chosen by my daughter, that bland music where we took refuge. You changed the atmosphere with your questions; you broke the rhythm. I think it was your interruption of the rhythm that made us really see you as an intruder. You were dribbling a bit, as well. You couldn’t hold your tongue. You asked so many questions and you couldn’t keep it in your mouth, that tongue, even when you stopped talking. It kept coming out in an involuntary movement. There was always a little saliva around your mouth. It was embarrassing. If only you knew how embarrassing it was. But you did know, surely you knew. You must have realised that there was a sudden empty space around you, and uneasy looks. You must have seen how out of place you were. Your questions, punctuated by that tic with your tongue, were so obtrusive that a waiter forced you to take some food, to shut you up. He needn’t have bothered because you carried on opening your mouth, forgetting even the most basic good manners. You asked your questions with your mouth full, picking up the bits of food that your words forced out of your mouth with quick little flicks of your tongue. What other world do you belong to? Don’t you even know that no one really talks at weddings? We just occupy the space, fill the silence. Language has no other function at a wedding, and the same goes for all sorts of other ceremonies. Talking is something that occupies our mouths, like canapés, to keep them away from real words and real questions.

    My daughter stared at me in disgust and annoyance. She was commanding me, with that look, to get rid of you. You besieged us with questions but wouldn’t answer ours. It even seemed as though you couldn’t answer them, although they were simple. Who are you? Who invited you? Are you from the bride’s family or the groom’s? Now, in the car, you answer me in fits and starts. I have to choose my questions carefully so as not to arouse your suspicions. You mustn’t realise what has happened, you mustn’t understand why I’m here, why I picked you up even though my own daughter is celebrating her wedding at the end of a different road. You mustn’t piece all the information together. You answer me in bursts, as though the answers come from within your body. You answer your own questions, which aren’t really questions but just your panic. You try to make sense of the story. Why those people invited you and why they kicked you out.

    You ask me what I think. You didn’t know how to react or how to defend yourself. You don’t know that there is no better weapon than approval, no better defence than saying yes. You said no endlessly, disrespectfully, in a high, forced voice. You brandished your indignant no, trying to slip it in between our sentences like a bad-mannered little girl weaving between the grown-ups’ legs. You retreated into your no as you would into a corner. Beside yourself and surrounded. While everyone was setting off to the dinner venue, you kept asking who was going to give you a lift. When you realised there was nothing for it, they were refusing to listen to you, you couldn’t force anyone to listen or to give you a lift, you just went off along the road, helpless as a child.

    You ran away.

    I was busy giving directions, organising my little crowd, and I didn’t see you escape. All the cars left the car park except mine and I was preparing to go and talk to you, to explain my mistake and apologise for us all, but you weren’t there. I was worried, and I got in the car and drove off looking for you. As I searched, I kept going back over the business from the start, from the beginning of the misunderstanding. I wondered at what moment I could have cleared up the misunderstanding, prevented the damage or averted the accident. Now it’s too late. You’re an accident for me, you know, but life, if only you knew, but surely you do know, better than I do, life is just that, a whole lot of hitches, contradictions, mishaps and revisions, and it’s all the better for that. It’s the opposite of inertia. You’re the opposite of inertia. You’re the thing that contradicts, that makes us stumble. You’re my hitchhiking tripwire.

    We’re almost at the station. You start up your words again and give them to me; you speak with that voice of yours, so much softer than the one that uttered your no, your refusal. You use it just for me. I’m the only one who hears it. I curl up inside it, and also in your smell, your special smell, which carries a hint of apprehension. I wonder how you cope with it all, the worries about sugar levels, the complex treatment, the constant vigilance, the worry and pain of your failing kidneys. Your smell struck me when I opened the car door to let you in, and I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t noticed it at the wedding. It was more spacious there, more ventilated, and less time had passed. There was still fresh perfume in the air. And you hadn’t worked yourself up into a state by saying no. You were just out of place. Out of place and all over the place, trying to get into the photo in front of the church, smiling and laughing. We’re closer to the evening now, closer to being tired, in a fug of lingering smells and resentment. You’re talking calmly to me, saying goodbye and thank you. I’ve got used to your smell. After paying for your train ticket I give you a hug. You say thank you so many times.

    I get back on the road and I don’t know if I’ll be able to return to the venue, my make-up smudged after all the emotion, ugly with shame, hair wild, so upset that I feel cracked, separate, a stranger, a stranger in my own family. I’ve got your smell on me. I hope no one will ask any questions and I hope no one will talk about you. I’ll open the door and try to conceal my dishevelled looks and my turmoil behind a smile. I’ll sit down surreptitiously amid a strange silence, a perplexed halt in the conversation, at the empty space by the little card bearing your name.

    Extract taken from Emmanuelle Pagano’s Faces on the Tip of my Tongue (Peirene Press, 2019).

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    Emmanuelle Pagano was born in 1969 in the Aveyron region of southern France and studied fine art and the aesthetics of cinema. She now lives and works on the Ardèche plateau. She has written more than a dozen works of fiction, and in France is primarily published by P.O.L. She has won the EU Prize for Literature and her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She regularly collaborates with artists working in other disciplines such as dance, cinema, photography, illustration, fine art and music.

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