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Ne Me Quitte Pas

“I can’t seem to remember her,” the man said in anguish. “I can’t remember her face or her body or her voice—that voice that I once adored. I have this mental image that her voice was pleasing, but the sound isn’t there. Do you understand? How can you be in love with someone whom you can’t seem to remember? We’ve only been separated for six months.” (The psychologist jotted something down in his notepad that passed unnoticed by the man who couldn’t remember. Igor Caruso, a famous psychoanalyst during the ’70s, wrote a lucid and heartbreaking essay about the separation of lovers; he observed that separated lovers cannot remember the face of their beloved ones.)

“When I want to remember her I have to look at her photograph,” the patient added. Client? Why not say customer outright? What does a client buy from a psychologist? He buys time. He buys attention. Self-control. He buys an audience. He buys a tolerant and compassionate ear, someone who will listen to him like a self-sacrificing mother, at the age when mothers aren’t around or need to be heard by others, not by their children.

“Do you gaze at her photo often?” the psychologist asked with apparent indifference.

“I took hundreds of photos of her—of her standing, lying down, on one side of the bed, on the other, laughing, naked, dressed, in the street, in the bathtub, caressing a child or a cat. I photographed her breasts, her pubic hair, her armpits, the nape of her neck, and her legs,” the client answered, suddenly delighted. He seemed to have dispelled his anguish. “Those photos are my treasure, my private museum.”

“Have you noticed how the world has changed since we’ve been able to take photographs instantaneously with our cell phones?” he asked.

The psychologist thought about Javier. Where was Javier? He was seventeen years old and still in high school, although he hated studying. Javier wanted the psychologist to teach him; it seemed more enjoyable than going to school and that way he felt privileged. Seventeen years old: a terrible age for studying. A terrible age for anything other than fornicating. Testosterone levels surging, raging hormones pumping through his body, that glistening body so lustrous from sweat—how he loved that body—rolling about with other bodies glistening with sweat on a sports field green with grass. Sweat nourished those fields; the sweat from seventeen- and eighteen-year-old boys forced to study by some perverse cultural supremacy against instinct. And he—forty-three years old—loving a body much younger than his own, more perfect and more beautiful, as one can only love what one has lost. This is why he would never leave him: so that he could remember him, unlike his client, who, upon separating from the woman he loved, couldn’t seem to remember her.

“She complained a bit about me taking so many photos: in the street, in bed, in restaurants, while she showered, while she dressed . . .”

“Why did you take so many photographs of her?” he asked.

Now, the client seemed about to make a serious effort to analyze his own behavior.

“I wanted to hold on to her, to keep her from escaping . . . Everything escapes us inevitably, right? I think that I took the photos in anticipation, like a premonition of what I feared would happen. Have you ever wanted to hold onto something fleeting?” he asked the psychologist.

He wasn’t accustomed to answering his clients’ questions. It was a way to maintain power. After a while, he responded with another question.

“Do you find this happening to you?”

“As if I both knew and feared what might one day happen.”

“Still,” the psychologist pointed out, “you were the one who left her.”

Igor Caruso had also observed that the person who leaves his beloved often feels abandoned. Perhaps he leaves because he once feared that they would leave him, or because he feels that he will be abandoned, or because he grew tired of being afraid.

Javier often told him, “I won’t ever leave you, ever,” with the confidence that one can have only at that age. And he smiled with a sadness that remained imperceptible to the boy. “You study and then we’ll see,” he answered, for a moment assuming a fatherly role that he didn’t like, one that didn’t sit well with him but that seemed to emerge from the age difference. The boy had his own father, he didn’t need another. And Javier wanted to say this to his real father, although he seemed anxious about challenging him, telling him, “I’m in love with a forty-three-year-old psychologist who’s intelligent, cultured, and a bit bald, and who I fuck every day.” Three times a day, as all adolescents at that age should, with their hormones pumping, aroused; and if they closed their eyes, their hormones, in red circles, represented volcanoes ready to explode.

Instead, they hole them up in high schools like zoos, where they are restless, and act up and spit at their professors—math and history don’t interest them. The only thing that does interest them is satisfying the urgent desires of their bodies, which is another kind of wisdom, like that of lions and tigers. He wouldn’t be able to keep up with the kid’s sexual rhythm much longer, but he didn’t want to surrender so soon, like the herd’s alpha male surrenders to the young pretender that wants to occupy his place. He was going to fight a bit more. Where was Javier that he hadn’t been able to call his cell phone yet?

To the psychologist’s surprise, Javier was bored by kids his own age. He was bored by other seventeen- and eighteen-year-old bodies.

“They only talk about soccer and girls, or about beer and mainstream music,” he had said with evident disdain. They, on the other hand, spoke about other things. And did other things. They watched old black-and-white movies with an eagerness that could only be born of extreme greed. Javier wanted to know everything, and not by his own effort: he liked it more when things were explained to him. Who was James Stewart and how many movies did Roberto Rossellini make? What caused the expulsion of the Jews in Spain and how did dragonflies reproduce (with a penis much longer than the male dragonfly’s body, a type of aspirator that can extract the semen of past males, and remains attached to the female for as long as possible, sometimes lasting several hours, so as to prevent other males from penetrating her)? What vocal register did Ella Fitzgerald have and when was D-Day during WWII? How was Che Guevara killed and why was Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert named Köln (for the city or for the minister)? All while reading Baudelaire and Rimbaud together, or watching Casablanca, Gilda, and The Night of the Hunter together. Javier seemed aroused by having acquired all the information he had lacked in such a short period of time just as he, the psychologist, was anxious to keep him by his side, knowing, however, that one day he would lose him.

As the client had known—sensed—that one day he was going to lose the woman he loved.

“She asked me to give her back the photographs,” he said, “but I’m not going to. No way. I took them, they’re mine. She seemed happy when I took them.”

“Did she always?” the psychologist asked.

“No, sometimes she complained a bit, but it was a game, a flirtation.”

“Did you photograph her because you had a feeling that you would one day separate?” he pointedly asked.

“I wanted to trap her in some way, I wanted to keep her. I think that photography is a way to battle against all fleetingness. And if she wants them back it’s because she knows, she has a feeling, that there’s a part of her life in those photographs that no longer belongs to her.”

“Who do they belong to?” the psychologist asked. Sometimes, he employed the Socratic Method—maieutic—which seemed more dialectic.

“To death,” the client declared sententiously, yet in a neutral voice. Surely the pain of this affirmation had already passed; he had felt it before, while taking the photographs. We forget the pain; not all of it, but a large part of it. If we remembered it, we wouldn’t be able to continue living.

“Do you look at the photos often?” the psychologist asked.

Why hadn’t Javier called him? They had a code for when he was working. Javier would leave a missed call, and then he would know that he was already at home, reading, watching old movies, or cooking. Javier liked surprising him with a homemade meal—full of calories and cholesterol—that he shouldn’t eat, but that he consumed with great relish to please the boy. “I’m scared of losing him,” he thought in a moment of self-analysis.

“Sometimes I feel a horrible sensation of emptiness,” the client said. “Emptiness, do you understand me? It’s worse than pain. Pain occupies so much space; it takes up the entire nervous system; it’s all-consuming, sharp. Yet, emptiness is an odd sensation of estrangement, a hollow. When I feel this hollowness I pick up the photographs.”

The psychologist thought it a type of museum. A museum that the client had erected for her, but that, in reality, was the only thing keeping him from going insane. A loving sanctuary. Of the sort where women, in olden times, would keep their religious stamps, little embroidered altar cloths, and the tiny scissors used to cut the umbilical cords of their children or grandchildren.

“When I look at her in the photographs, I get something back. Don’t ask me what, but I feel a bit fuller again.”

“You only look at them?” the psychologist asked. He imagined Javier in the gym, with those little white shorts so clean, so well-ironed—he was a bit obsessive, his love, obsesivito—his little white sports shoes, white socks against golden legs, strong, shapely, and completely waxed. Like many boys of his generation, he liked to have a pristine body, free of hair. He kept some hair on his chest and near his belly button, unpleasant, those hairs had always seemed unpleasant, but it had never occurred to him to get rid of them.

“I look at them, yes, until I’m filled with her once more. I suffer a bit, it’s true,” the patient said, “but it’s another kind of suffering. Then, for a few moments, I remember what I felt. I remember her and I remember us.”

The man had resisted forgetting, at least until he had something else to keep him occupied. He traversed his sorrow with the images in hand, as if they were the terror that inspired the emptiness within him.

“Oblivion is a defense mechanism,” the doctor explained. “If we were to remember, we couldn’t keep on living.”

“I don’t want to defend myself for having loved her,” the client protested. “It’s true; we’ve separated. Our relationship was no longer good. We fought a lot. But I loved her. And I think she loved me as well.”

He was in no condition to accept oblivion yet. But he defended himself against it heroically, as if he were dealing with his only possession.

Would the same thing happen to Javier? No, he had taught him well. He had said, “When you part from me, forget me immediately. Not one memory, no emotions. Don’t have mercy on me or on yourself. You’ll quickly find another man to love. Or another woman. Don’t keep fetishes. Forget the music we heard, the movies we watched, the cities we visited. Forget the sofa, the comforter, the lamp. Don’t be scared; don’t think it painful or unjust. To keep living, it’s necessary to forget what you’ve lived. And to keep loving, it’s necessary to forget what was loved.” Javier had objected, as his age dictated. “I’m never going to leave you, never, ever,” Javier had said, and he smiled with heavyhearted satisfaction. “You’ll leave me when you grow tired of me,” he had responded. “And I will die of sadness, of emptiness, and of melancholy,” Javier thought.

To love someone much younger was a completely solitary act, but if love was not a solitary matter, what then?

“I know,” the patient said, “that one day I will look at the photos differently. Will I recognize her in those photos? Or will it be like now, that I can’t remember her face if I’m not staring at the photographs? I’ve split with other women before, you understand. Sometimes, at a party or in some bar, a woman might come up to me and greet me as if she knew me and I might ask myself, ‘Have we made love?’ But with her it was different. She’s the only woman I’ve ever loved in my life. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? I’m trying to say that I didn’t only want to make love to her; I wanted to watch her get dressed, I wanted to hear the water fall as she showered, I wanted to go to the movies with her, eat pizza at night, laugh—I wanted to watch her get old. When she spotted a wrinkle, she got scared and complained; she rejected that wrinkle. On the other hand, I felt a gush of love. I loved that wrinkle, I liked looking at it.” The psychologist thought that the client was using the sessions in order to invoke her. It was possible that the client didn’t have any friends with whom he could speak about her. Modern life was quite dynamic, active, and swift; he didn’t have the time to recall anything on his own. Everything was consumed so quickly and this poor man was making a concentrated effort not to forget, to cheat death for one more day—recovering from death what he had once felt.

He heard his cell phone. He breathed a sigh of relief. He wanted to know that Javier was already at home. He would have already showered, put his gym clothes in the washer while separating the lights from the darks, he would have put the laundry soap in one slot and the softener in the other—he was very careful, obsesivito—and now he would be consulting some recipe that would await the psychologist, some food that was difficult to digest, full of calories, but that he would eat with an immense love, because Javier loved him and wanted to please him. And he loved Javier.

And while Javier cooked, he would look for one of those Jazz CDs that the psychologist collected, listening to it attentively, and then he would make a list of questions: who was Duke Ellington? How many movies did Michelangelo Antonioni make? Can we go to Santa Margarita Island this summer? Who won the World Soccer Championship in 1951? After, they would play Trivial Pursuit for a bit. Then, at some point—by dusk or as darkness fell—Javier would begin to kiss him, the corners of his lips, inside his ears, the nape of his neck. He would lick his nipples, until the psychologist, a bit tired but quite turned on, flipped him onto his back on the long, wide leather sofa and carefully, with extreme care (inversely related to his desire), lowered him onto the narrow gray blanket (he had a collection of them in every color, “To change them throughout the day,” he said with apparent ingenuity) and begin to kiss him delicately, nothing violent, but rather devotedly. There was the almost imperceptible trace of hair that he had waxed from the tip of his coccyx, the small gap between his seventh and eighth vertebrae, his buttocks tense and well-toned, and extremely gently—nothing violent, or was it that the violence was contained?—he would insert the tip of his member, feeling like he was committing one of the oldest acts in the world, the initial act, the act repeated from prehistory on by bison, elephants, crows, giraffes, chimpanzees, dinosaurs, and butterflies. And he would begin to tremble epileptically and to breathe heavily, the forty-something male imposing his seniority, the alpha male not ready to give up, who would rather die before ceding power, the older male who loves and envies lost youth. (He had never been handsome, he had never been attractive, yet the young male, handsome and attractive, let himself be sodomized by him, as often occurs between lions and tigers.)

And when they finished, Javier would sleep on his shoulder, happy and satisfied, trusting that he was in good hands; one day he could leave him without a pang of regret.

It seemed to him that he had to tell the patient that he shouldn’t go too far in looking at the photos of the woman he had loved. Sometimes, the result could be more painful, but each of us is a measure of our own pain and perhaps the emptiness he would feel upon not doing it would be worse.

“I’ll see you next week,” he said, ending the session.

When the client left, he called home. Javier answered.

“I’m making breaded chicken with lemon sauce,” said a cheerful Javier.

He hated lemon sauce, but he wasn’t going to say it.

“You’ll never guess what song I downloaded from the Internet tonight.” (He couldn’t hold in the news any longer.)

The psychologist made an effort. It was useless; he was tired. Did this boy not know that he worked seven hours a day with other people’s sorrow? Seven exhausting hours.

“Tell me, darling. I know that it will be a most pleasant surprise.”

Ne me quitte pas,” responded Javier enthusiastically. Edith Piaf’s version.

Ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas. A hit from another time, thought the psychologist.

© Cristina Peri Rossi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Megan Berkobien. All rights reserved.