Fiction

Mistaken


Translated by JC Sutcliffe
Originally published as La Méprise in Le Saboteur d’avenir (Les Éditions L’Interligne, 2013).

The weirdest thing happened to me today. As I was leaving work around five, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen since high school. We went for a quick drink to catch up, reliving the memories of those years when everything still seemed possible, when every experience allowed us to avoid—or so we thought—the monotony of what we dismissively called “growing up.” As we chatted about our respective lives, I couldn’t help blushing a little when I admitted that I’d been with the same woman for ten years and that I was a civil servant and “happy that way,” while he was still single and doing rather well for himself as an artist. “My life really has become the unique adventure we used to dream about,” he claimed, “because I’ve clung on to that taste for authenticity we thought was so important.”

My mind returned to our conversation as I made my way home, my thoughts influenced by the landscape that had spooled past my eyes every morning and every evening for ten years without my ever truly seeing it. I drew a parallel between the settled life about which my friend had made so many barbed comments and the houses, meticulously identical, lined up along the rigidly straight streets of the residential area I lived in. My suburb was a triumph of housing standardisation Le Corbusier himself would have approved of. The urban grid was bordered with duplexes in ochre brick, their garage entrances sunk into the ground. All the houses blurred together: as further embellishment to this superfluous project, every second one has the same decorative designs on its doors and windows. The uniformity of the scene led inevitably to meditative thoughts, and absorbed in my reflections—my friend had talked so enthusiastically of our adolescence that his languid nostalgia had managed to disturb my normally calm and satisfied spirit—I quickly covered, without even noticing, the distance between my usual bus stop and my house.

By Charlie Harutaka

By Charlie Harutaka

As I reached the metal railings marking out my lawn, I thought back to one of my friend’s sarcastic remarks about my sex life, which he imagined must be “extremely exciting after ten years.” Just then I noticed that the front door of the neighbouring house stood ajar. Through the half-open door came a prism of light, spreading over the grass and reaching right up to where I stood. Although I am not curious by nature, an inexplicable force drove me to see what was happening. The door opened, and the prism of light widened, enveloping me. Surprised in such flagrant voyeurism, I was caught in a breach of the unknown. A woman whose face I couldn’t really see in the half-light but who appeared to be pretty came out. She was wearing a skirt that showed off her long legs and a zip-up jacket that wrapped around her ample chest. The light went out and the door closed behind a man. He raised his hand to me in greeting, bursting my erotic bubble. As I returned the gesture, I thought of my wife. “She has everything I need, right where I need it,” I told myself, before turning towards my own dwelling, my serenity restored. At the bottom of the steps, I glanced over my shoulder. The man was walking around his car while his companion, already seated, lifted her endless legs into the vehicle.

By the time I was inside, the engine’s reverberations had faded. Comforted by the filtered light from the living room and the tempting aroma of roasted meat, I began to forget my worries. Out of habit, I laid my suit jacket on what I thought was the hall table, only to have it land at my feet. “My wife must have moved the furniture round again, keeping herself busy,” I thought to myself, rolling my eyes. From the kitchen a ringing voice called out “Who’s there?” to which I replied, not without a slight note of exasperation, “Who do you think it is, honey?”

My wife appeared in the entrance hall. “I wasn’t expecting you so early,” she said with pleasure.

“Yes, I know,” I replied. “But we quickly exhausted all the conversational possibilities. After all these years, we’ve become very different people.”

“How so? Life is so simple nowadays.”

“Some clowns just like to make things complicated for themselves.”

“Ah, I see. A reactionary.”

I noticed she was wearing a skirt like the one the neighbour had been wearing. “Is that new?” I asked.

“It’s all the rage in the shops downtown,” she replied, giving a proud little twirl. “I even bought the zip-up jacket that goes with it. Do you like it?”

I indicated that I did as my wife bent over to pick up my jacket and case. She put my things down on the hall table, which was opposite me rather than behind me. The furniture all seemed to be the other way round than usual. My wife came up to kiss me, but I was obliged to interrupt her owing to a pressing need to discharge the litre of beer distending my bladder. I opened the bathroom door, and before I was even aware of my blunder she asked, “Sweetie, what are you doing in the closet?”

“Nothing,” I replied, disturbed. “I just want to go for a pee.”

“Since when has the toilet been in the closet? I hope you didn’t have too much to drink with your friend. What was his name again?”

As I turned round, I caught a glimpse of light reflecting off ceramic and I hurried to the room I had mixed up with the closet. While I was relieving myself, my wife informed me, through the door and the gurgles, that the meal was served.

Soon I had but one desire: to see my wife naked.

In the dining room, two plates were filled with a sauce whose aroma would have pushed even the most zealous of hunger strikers break their fast. My wife was bustling about in the kitchen and told me to sit at the table and wait for her, which I hurried to do, wearied by all my mental exertions since five o’clock. She put the bread basket down by me and said sweetly, “Honey, you know I prefer being closer to the kitchen. Sit opposite me, in your usual place, please.” I didn’t mind either way, so I moved, saying, “This smells great. Is it a new recipe?”

“What are you talking about, honey?” she replied. “It’s pig trotter stew. You’re always reminding me that it’s your favourite meal and telling me I don’t make it often enough.”

It’s true that I like pig trotter stew, although I don’t recall its being my favourite recipe—“perhaps precisely because she doesn’t make it often enough,” I thought—but I didn’t make a big fuss about it, choosing instead to honour the dish that was cooling in front of me.

During the meal, I kept experiencing an uncomfortable, although not entirely disagreeable, sensation. An excitement, at first subtle, had started up in my gut and then, driven outwards by its own strength, had spread to all my viscera. This caused me to direct several oblique glances towards my wife’s blouse, whose neckline gave me glimpses of the lace on her bra. This emotion, innocuous to begin with, quickly became an obsession. Soon I had but one desire: to see my wife naked.

I felt the nerves of a first amorous encounter, just as if I was face to face with a stranger I desired intensely, something inconceivable given that our conjugal relationship had just celebrated its first decade. If these feelings took me by surprise, it was not because I was indifferent to my wife’s body, nor that my wife had been ugly before her plastic surgery a few years earlier: her lips, already full, were now perfect, and her slightly aquiline nose now had an ideal shape. Her silicone breasts were finally worthy of my adolescent fantasies, while her shapely body and statuesque legs completed a dream physiognomy which, twinned with a sweet personality—of which, I should point out, she was in possession before all these improvements—has filled me with unparalleled happiness for all these years. But with the passing of time, I admit that I no longer noticed these alterations; so used to them had I become that I barely gave them any thought.

Disconcerted by these urges, I only half listened to the stories of her day. Knowing her daily routine off by heart saved me from a faux pas when, at one point, she interrupted her soliloquy to demand irritably, “What’s the matter with you? Aren’t you interested in my stories?”

Lost in the mists of a sensuality I’d almost forgotten, I could only reply with a vague “Of course, my love.”

She was not to be taken in by that. “Oh right,” she said in an accusing tone, “So what was I saying?”

“You were telling me how hard your run was because you were worn out after working all day, then your yoga session downtown and your late-afternoon coffee at Blandbucks with your friends.”

“I’ll have you know it wasn’t any old Blandbucks, but the one by the park. I had to brave rush hour traffic to get there and make that yoga instructor happy, the one who’s always making me feel guilty with her tales of volunteering to save Africa and the environment.”

“Honey,” I said distractedly, “They’re all the same, those cafés.”

“You really are acting strangely tonight! What did your friend say to you, to make you so contrary?” With a perplexed look, my wife got up to clear the table.

Was this a sexual springtime for us, slumbering under the snows of familiarity and conjugal boredom?

At last we found ourselves in bed, although not without a further hitch. My wife had to reproach me once again for my absentmindedness. This time I got into bed on the wrong side. As we changed places, I nuzzled her neck with my lips, inspired by the desire that been growing all the while we cleared the table and got ready for bed. Her perfume smelled different: it was the smell of a small wild animal, a light mix of musk and flowers, that got me as excited as a rutting virgin. Slipping my hands under her nightdress, I cupped her breasts. Despite my conviction that I was only too familiar with them, their round weight filled me with a happiness of surprising intensity. I was delighted by this sensory amnesia that allowed me to experience, once more, the sensual pleasures of discovery. As I undressed her, I rediscovered for the umpteenth time the beauty spots scattered around her body like her own special constellation. I wanted her in a way I hadn’t felt for a very long time. Was this a sexual springtime for us, slumbering under the snows of familiarity and conjugal boredom? The precise nature of the enchantment mattered little. I was counting on making the most of it without asking myself any more questions, and I laughed at my friend’s jibes. When I recalled them, they seemed coloured with a disillusioned note I hadn’t detected at the beginning of the evening.

Once the act was consummated, we stretched out on the bed, sweaty and satisfied. I asked, as I always do, “Well, my beautiful Darlene, how was it for you?”

She widened her eyes and smiled like a child. “Is that your new nickname for me?”

“What?” I puffed, exhausted by our lovemaking.

“You’ve never called me darling before.”

“Not darling, Darlene.”

“Darlene?”

“Yes, Darlene. Your name.”

“Uh, no. Sorry.” She had taken on an unfamiliar serious air, which made me murmur nervously, “Who are you, then?”

“I am the woman from number 2046, 107th Street. And you are?”

“I’m from number 2048, 105th Street.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, holding out her hand.

I pulled the sheet over myself. Despite the fact that she was an exact reproduction of my wife, I felt suddenly intimidated by this stranger. Since she remained silent, with no sign of embarrassment or discomfort, I stammered, “I’m sorry. Very sorry.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said, reassuringly. “These things happen.”

“You know,” I continued, in an apologetic tone, “you really have to pay attention with these alternating house designs. But even so, I don’t know how I made such a mistake. I’d just like to point out that that your road is incredibly similar to the one my house is on.”

She remained serene, almost maternal. “Yes, yes, don’t worry about it.”

“And then all those surgeries,” I continued, “This aesthetic obsession you all have with making yourselves equally beautiful…”

“The days of envying our neighbours are over!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“With a slight risk of leading to misunderstandings, don’t you think?”

“I told you, I’ve already forgotten it.”

She put on her nightdress before getting out of bed to pick up my clothes, which she handed to me with a smile as if nothing had happened.

I left the house after stammering out a few more excuses. Once the front door was closed, I heard footsteps behind me. A man was about to climb the steps to the building. I stood dumbfounded as I noticed him, not because I suspected he was the husband I had just unintentionally cuckolded, but because it was like meeting my double. The resemblance was staggering. Although his nose was wider than mine, we had the same defeated expression. Like me, he wore a grey suit jacket with straight-legged trousers that led down to a pair of shiny shoes whose leather was cracking at the base of the toes. He had the “slave posture” my friend had mocked me for: curved back, one shoulder lower than the other, stretched by the briefcase that hung from the end of his arm like a growth.

As I remained silent, he took the initiative and greeted me with a neighbourly tone. “Good evening, my good man. You aren’t lost, are you?”

“Indeed I am.”

“That’s odd,” he said, forcing a laugh. “I myself have just taken the wrong street.”

Seeing that he felt as uncomfortable as I did, I pulled myself together. “I’ve just noticed my mistake,” I lied. “Luckily, I noticed that your doorbell is on the opposite side to the one I am used to, which stopped me in time.”

“What a relief,” the man sighed. “Things weren’t so straightforward on my side. I didn’t realise my error until after I’d slept with a stranger’s wife. I’m extremely upset; I can’t think how I’m going to explain this to my wife.”

“I’m sure she’ll understand. It’s completely excusable.”

“I didn’t intend to, I assure you. I’ve been taking the same route for more than ten years, and I simply don’t see how this could have happened.”

“These alternating house designs lead to misunderstandings.”

“Precisely. As does this obsession with plastic surgery!”

“Just be honest with her. I’m sure everything will be all right.”

We said goodnight as he climbed the steps. I noticed him checking the number on the door as he stood in the shadow of the porch. I was about to continue on my way when doubt assailed me, and I asked, before he could go into his house, “Where was it?”

“Where was what?” he said, surprised.

“Which house did you go into?”

“I left without checking. All I know is that the woman was just like my wife in every way.”

“And the configuration of the building—did you notice whether it was the opposite way round to yours?”

“It wasn’t. That’s precisely why I made the mistake.”

“Quite,” I replied, reassured. “Good night, sir.”

He went back into his house. The lights of 2046 have been out for a few moments now. No shouts or noises have come from the building I just left. The woman, as understanding with him as she had been with me earlier, must have immediately forgiven her husband’s mistake, to the extent that they could carry on with their normal routine in spite of the late hour. My own wife will be waiting for me, paralysed with worry because I am normally on time. But a certain reticence stops me from going home. Instead, I’m still standing on the sidewalk in front of number 2046, taking a moment to think about things, let it all settle. My mind is racing, and I attempt to focus on the concrete objects around me. I look at my legs stretching down to the road, the clothes I’ve been wearing every day for ten years, my sad leather shoes, my grey trousers, my shirt with its sleeves rolled up. My case stands upright on the asphalt like a soldier at attention.

“I can no longer be sure I’m living my own life.”

The street is deserted and the neighbourhood silent, but my friend’s words echo relentlessly in my head as if he is standing next to me. I ask “Do you think it’s possible to turn back the clock?”

I am not particularly surprised when I hear a voice reply, “I thought you were happy with your life.” My friend materialises out of the shadows and stands beside a lamppost.

“So did I,” I say. “But after the evening I’ve just had, you can understand why I’m doubting things.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“When I used to fondle my wife’s real breasts, their shape—of mangoes pointing towards the ceiling—reassured me that I was with her and nobody else. Before we moved here, when we used to go to our corner café, we were charmed, my wife and I, with the idea that our happiness was unique simply because there was no other place on the planet quite like that café. Now, everything is just like everything else, yet at the same time indistinct. I can no longer be sure of recognizing my wife when I go home. I can no longer be sure I’m living my own life.”

“Unfortunately, it’s too late: the transformations your wife has undergone leave permanent scars, just like any operation of standardization.” My friend pats me on the shoulder and says “But what you have done can be undone, at least partially.” Seeing my distraught face, his tone becomes conciliatory. “Stop worrying about it and go home, old chap. There’s no point fretting about these trivial things.” He steps back into the twilight and adds, before disappearing into the night, “After all, this is probably all just a bad dream you won’t even remember tomorrow.”

I rub my face to try to wake myself up, but I’m still here, still standing in front of number 2046. “I’m so tired I can’t think straight,” I say to myself as I pick up my case. “I’ll worry about it later, when my head is clearer. Now I should get home to my wife. I do hope she’ll have kept a bit of stew warm for me.”


Goyette Jonathan 2015Jonathan Goyette is interested in social and political issues, contemporary, historical, hysterical. In 2013 he published Le Saboteur d’avenir, a collection of short stories, humorous critiques of today’s society which he describes as being “demagogiquement engagées.” He currently works on too many projects at the same time. You can find some of his work here.

By Charlie Harutaka JC Sutcliffe is a writer, editor and translator. Her book reviews have been published most recently in the Literary Review of Canada and the Times Literary Supplement. She also writes about books at Slightly Bookist.