They say that the best solution is to stay young of body as you grow old of mind. Stay young on the outside and grow on the inside. Settle down, learn life’s lessons and have experiences in a young person’s body. Rush headlong into life with a young person’s force. Because force, according to adults, is that rising slope of regenerating cells. At twenty-five, it’s the downward slope. At twenty-five, you hit the point of no return and start going backwards. The cells get lazy, start daydreaming. They’ve had enough of being good and keeping busy; they’re sick of desperately splitting into four. At twenty-five, it’s like the cells start missing roll call. They pop and sizzle like a slice of bacon shrivelling in a pan. That’s where the ageing starts. That’s the decay, the degeneration. That’s what they say.
Everyone has something to say about everything. Everyone talks crap. Grown-ups believe that youth is a time of blossoming and glory. It’s not true. They’ve forgotten what they were. With aging comes short memories. Personally, I think the best solution is for adults to leave young peoples’ bodies alone. The best solution is that they keep their noses out of the business of young bodies. The best solution is that they stop even saying that word. Young. That they finally accept their own train, that they ride their train, filled with their business, and stop looking back, over their shoulders. When the world’s population stops looking over its shoulder to grieve a lost youth, that will be a start.
Because youth is only the best solution in the eyes of age. Take me, for example. I’ve been young, and I didn’t blossom. The opposite was true. My youth deflated: the body meant to shine, to radiate its splendour, the force supposed to be chock-full of regenerative cells – it all got bogged down in an orgy of pimples, overly long legs, a skinny gait. I wasn’t the one with glory. The idea that, now, I’m supposed to regret not living my youth as my hour of glory is worse. It makes me laugh. I’m resentful.
For a start, I loved wrongly, and I loved off-target. Never the right people. In chronological order: my father, the neighbour across the road, my piano teacher, Boy George, my older brother, and Peter Criss, the drummer of Kiss who made himself up like a cat. I would never know if my big brother or the cat who played the drums like crazy, its face painted like Peter Criss, entered my heart first. Maybe they came along at the same time, because it was because of my brother’s love for Peter Criss that I loved Peter Criss. That was a long, long time ago. It makes me laugh too.
Then my first best friend, Peggy, wreaked havoc on my heart. No, more than that: trauma. Peggy traumatised me for life. Whether she wants to or not, Peggy will hound me until my dying breath. It could have been someone else. Someone else could have done the job just as well but they didn’t – she and no one else played the role of traumatising me. I bet she hardly even remembers me. I bet that Peggy today isn’t really even Peggy. I bet she has grown up on the outside and on the inside too, that she has aged in every way, on all sides. That she’s a grown-up, like me. That she’s like everyone else, that she has things to say about everything and talks crap. That she has stepped out of the picture where I’ve kept her frozen in my mind. These days, the only thing I know about her is that she listened to her father.
Before, Peggy wasn’t like the rest of the world: she was the world. We were in high school. I was fifteen. And high school life, its centre of gravity, was Peggy. Boys loved her without end. Sexy Peggy. Without knowing it. Adults saw it: her budding genius for sexiness. I didn’t, not then. Or I saw it, but I couldn’t find the words. The fancy words that describe things like that – they’re for grown-ups too. Before words become words, they exist as a sort of burning in the body, in the plexus, which spills out in a deluge, like an acid wave which unfurls in hoops of fire right down to your toes and up to your scalp. When I looked at Peggy, the burning started in my plexus. The burning burned, and I knew it was the sensation of trauma. I wasn’t like her and I cursed her because I should have been her. In moments of clarity when I realised it wasn’t her fault that she was she and me, just me, when the truth hit me like a clap of thunder in the face, I would turn to cursing myself instead and life would get a little harder. Understanding things doesn’t make things easier; if anything, it makes them stand out. Understanding is a seed for the heaviness of life. And the burning sensation is like that: it travels from one person to another like a ping-pong ball. You try to throw it to someone else but they send it back, transforming into an impenetrable surface from which it rebounds. Then the burning comes back to you in full force. And so you learn that each body is an island, a closed system from which you can’t escape. Don’t trust people who claim to travel like astral bodies – they’re either lying or they’re crazy.
One day I wanted to explain it, the burning, and the words came. Now, I’m in the process of writing it. Later, in a few years, I’ll decide if it’s done me any good. Because good, true good, only settles in in hindsight. Good is a duration, a significant length of time: much longer than a pleasure.
At high school, the real question, beyond even the boys, was: what should a girl be, and do, to be desired? And the answer wasn’t a speech. It wasn’t made up of words from grown-ups, or even of grown-up words. The answer needed no scientific explanations. It was non-verbal. The answer was an element just like water, a matter of the same order as mucus. Hanging from the tip of someone’s nose, you could see it from a mile off. The answer was an embodiment: Peggy. Peggy with two arms raised high above her head into the Agora. Two arms extending interminably above her head, making full use of the stretch to emphasise what was below: her body in its entirety. Sexy. Burning. Peggy set everything around her on fire.
When she raised her arms, it was like she was lifting a cover or taking off a jumper. Arms up to the sky, Peggy managed to lie down while staying upright. She went to bed, even while sitting. Stretching out as though waking up in bed, but not in her bed. In the Agora. And probably outside the Agora too, because stretching out could be a way of life. You could stretch out from morning to night. It’s been done before. Sure, it must be tiring. I tried thinly to imitate her, but the pose eluded me, the pose fled my long body because it wanted to get back to Peggy, to stay with her for maximum effect.
When I think of her today, I see her in that pose: stretching out. Trauma came in the form of Peggy’s outstretched body. When Peggy stretched out, when she raised her arms like she wanted the sky to take her in its own arms, all of high school stopped breathing. Because being desirable meant making everyone else stop living, for long enough to look; turning the world into an audience, relegated around you in the stands. Beauty is an order which charges everyone with stillness and contemplation. Beauty is a blow which brings people to their knees.
But Peggy was also my best friend. This relationship entailed a certain physical proximity. We were always side by side. Being side by side led to comparison and from the comparison Peggy only emerged looking better. Comparison is always underpinned by cruelty, that’s why we should compare the comparers themselves. Then they would be forced to understand. They would understand the burning that comes from the gaze. They would understand that the gaze is unjust. The gaze is like the rain: in some inundated spots, there’s too much, in other deserted spots, there’s not enough. I was the Sahara.
One day I had had enough of being her best friend and I stopped. Without a word, just by pulling away, putting distance between us. I threw myself into my studies. That’s what old people suggest when they see young people having a hard time. They say: throw yourself into your studies. They say it as though the studies were an Olympic pool, a lake, a sea at high tide that you could surf on, as though you could stand up and glide over the unhappiness that engulfed you. I stopped taking the bus and eating in the cafeteria too. Instead I ate between the rows of lockers, sitting on the ground. The library was my safest hide-out. The library was a system of study and books which shielded me from the comparison that had settled in. I was still a beanpole with big feet but a beanpole that was no longer emphasised by Peggy. As a system, the library worked, but still I was somehow even more unhappy than before. Even out of sight, Peggy kept appearing in the back of my mind, coming to me through the algebra problems I had to solve, lifting her arms and stretching out tirelessly in the novels that I read. While every novel ended up coming to an end and every problem found its solution, Peggy was unsolvable. I had to adapt to the world instead of rejecting it. And as I said before: Peggy was the world. So I went back to Peggy.
But Peggy was not the world for everyone. Behind her was another, sadder, world. The strange thing is that this world, her world, the place she was from, no one could envy. Not even me. Her mother had died of cancer when she was only eight and her father was a soldier. A sergeant in the militia. Her father wanted Peggy to become a police officer. Old people have such a crude way of taking an interest in young people: they put their noses into no-go zones like destiny, like the future prospects of the brood. They can’t help themselves, making plans for the flesh of their flesh. Then again, the brood aren’t completely blameless, letting themselves be led, listening and taking everything in without even realising.
Once I asked her if she wanted to join the police like her father wanted her to. She responded with an index finger pointed in my direction, her hand a gun. She responded with a cliché: hands up! Finger on the trigger with me at point blank range, she was a cowboy, she was the sheriff of her house haunted by a dead mother. With one eye closed for better aim, she shot me with her finger gun: bang! bang! My two arms were raised above my head; I think it was my submission to her display of authority that killed me.
Her house was cold and dark. Peggy was poor and her house was the biggest giveaway of her poverty. It was a motherless house which always seemed empty. We would often hang out in the basement, listening to music and talking about boys. Heavy metal: Metallica, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne. One night three spiders, daddy long-legs, started moving towards us on the worn carpet. I leapt from the musty-smelling green armchair that was puffy with moisture and screamed in surprise while Peggy, her face teasing, killed them with a triumphant foot, one by one: splat, splat, splat.
You’re a pisspants, she said to me. And that word, that cheeky concoction of language that meant weak, spineless and inferior, that word, pisspants, scaredy pee, became part of my trauma. Entered with a bang. A word into the bargain. Peggy might have made you want to get to her but she had thick skin. Rough words. And when you really looked at her, when you managed to see beyond her outstretched pose, you could feel the resonances of her impoverished house, you could make out the darkness of her bedroom down in the basement, glimpse the spiders moving closer on the carpet. It was a front, her raised arms, a mask, a smokescreen which diverted your attention from the empty house inhabited by the father who wanted her to join the police.
But at that age, I didn’t know. The only thing I was certain about were the parts that belonged to me: the burning and its pain. The burning which said: she has it and you don’t. What she had and I didn’t, I’d have had a hard job describing. Today, I know: she had everyone else, she had their gaze, she existed everywhere in the mind of the student body, she lived simultaneously in hundreds of high school heads. She had the boys, for her alone. The three hundred musketeers at her disposal. I had the area forgotten by the rain. An arid, sealess beach from which the tourists turned away. That must be why we chose each other as best friends: her to bring in even more looks and me to better shield myself from them, in the shadow of her outstretched body. We were each in our own mould, in different patterns which coiled around each other, seeking to complement.
If Peggy suffered, she didn’t suffer because of me. My unthreatening presence was always a welcome one to her. But I suffered because of Peggy. When we went out, the boys surrounded her, they couldn’t help it. They didn’t notice my presence and they couldn’t help that either. I simply watched them watch her and I burned. I was on fire. A lot of the time I’d invent a reason to leave, a lot of the time I’d leave without letting anyone know.
Once I saw her kiss two different boys in the same night. I’d never seen anything like it and I was captivated. Captivated, and in agony. At the third kissed boy, something broke inside me. The trauma split in two like a tree struck by lightning in its centre. I swear I heard the heart-wrenching crack. The sudden and irreparable tearing shook the whole length of my body. A fire sprang from the split tree too, the flames licking the broken heart. I ran from the military shelter where the party was at, I cried as I raced down the big hill on rue Frontenac, I ran and I cried as I headed back to the lake with my hair blowing and knotting in the wind, as I took the wooded path to my house, where my mother and father lived with my brother, where my parents were so much more parents than Peggy’s father and her dead mother, where my brother was someone who made me proud.
That night I took the flame of a candle to my photos of Peggy and I burnt them. All twenty-two. I had to get rid of the origin of the trauma, burn the source of the burning so it never came back. I haven’t spoken to her since. At school, she looked at me with sad eyes, but she understood, she forgave me, she knew she was too much for me, that she went too far and that I didn’t want to follow her into that too far. I know I hurt her.
We lost touch when high school ended, our paths broke off, we moved towns. We turned our backs on each other forever. Eventually, I got pretty, my size fell into step, and I too was somebody who deserved be looked at.
Yesterday I ran into her father when I was visiting my parents and I asked what she had become. Police, he responded. I became a writer.
That’s it. If one day I see her again, maybe I’ll take her in my arms.
Frances Egan is a translator, researcher and teaching associate based in Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed a PhD in French literature in a joint degree between The University of Melbourne and the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow and Going Down Swinging, and she is the translations editor of Australian journal the AALITRA Review.
Nelly Arcan was born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec in 1973. Her first novel Putain (2001) (in English Whore (2005)), based loosely on her experience as a sex worker in Montreal, was a literary sensation and a finalist for prestigious French prizes the Prix Médicis and Prix Femina. Two further novels, Folle (2004) (in English Hysteric (2014)) and À ciel ouvert (2007) (in English Breakneck (2015)), together with an illustrated book on the beauty myth (L’enfant dans le miroir (2007)), established Arcan’s renown in both France and Quebec. In 2009, Arcan died at the age of 36. Two titles have since been released posthumously (Paradis, clef en mains (2009), in English Exit (2011); Burqa de chair (2011), in English Burqa of Skin (2014)). Her work has been translated into several languages.