I hadn't seen her since she moved to London, and was surprised as she passed me while I sat on a bench in a graveyard I sometimes would sit on during the summer months. It was a comfortably warm early summer's day and it was during the virus that wiped out the city's tourist population, leaving them holed up in their own homes or at least in their home cities as I had been unable to leave mine. I had sat on the bench during previous summers but never for long. The flow of people passing through the cemetery left it difficult to concentrate and I usually felt obliged to vacate the bench when I saw an older tourist who looked like they needed it for a rest more than I needed it to read my book. Yet this summer I'd come almost daily, and sat for at least a couple of hours, looking up only very occasionally as someone would pass by. People rarely did and instead company consisted of robins and pigeons and the dead. I would listen to the birds, the robins' sharp call against the pigeon's low grumbling, and to the wind lightly blowing the branches.
She said she wasn't surprised to see me reading, that some things never change and it is reassuring to know they don't. I couldn't say the same of her as I was surprised even more by her appearance than her presence. Her hair looked unwashed, was straggly and shoulder-length, while I always remembered it in a bob, and she was wearing slack tracksuit bottoms, easy to wear clothes for a body that had gained weight. Her eyes were red and her skin blotchy as I tried in my expression to conceal the puzzlement and pity my mind was working through. She said I needn't try and hide what I was thinking as if she could read my mind but had probably just generalised the expressions of others that she could see too on my visage. At 33, had Samantha lost her looks, an attractiveness pronounced enough to crack open a few hearts and minds during our time at university together?
While I hadn't been impervious to her charms I did manage to resist her lure, an act of good fortune I often thought rather than one of deliberation, as though I had been given a mediocre psychology that left me with neither a killer instinct nor a death instinct. Instead, I seemed to possess a survival instinct that seemed to protect me from destruction and which has helped me on other occasions as well. After hearing Samantha's story I now wonder whether the killer instinct and the death instinct are somehow the same, or certainly similar, but during our time at university I would have assumed that Samantha was indeed someone who with her killer looks practiced a killer instinct, words in common parlance that on occasion can take on an uncommon comprehension.
I saw her initially at the beginning of our first year at a lecture on the 19th-century European novel and witnessed someone who moved less with elegance than insouciance, a sense in which she was impervious to the pains the world could inflict and I wouldn't have wished to be a recipient of that obliviousness. Sam and I were in the same tutorial class for the European novel that first term, and we continued as friends thereafter as she said she always liked a man around who had a tongue he used to speak with rather than allowing it to hang out of his mouth. She was never in any doubt about her looks and believing that I was a smart person who enjoyed her company allowed her to minimise the doubt she might have had over her intelligence. She knew she was clever enough but not really intellectual: what she wanted from the novels she read was an understanding of society for her own socio-political ends. Her major was sociology and she wasn't much interested in the nuance of character or the intricacies of form. She wanted the books to show her how badly many women lived in the past or how reliant on marital servitude they were and it was if at university she wanted in her own life to reverse the situation. Boyfriends came but never quite went. Over the four years, biddable Ben would still sometimes drive her to the supermarket; voluminous Vincent was still her workout trainer, Gerry, a PhD student, helped her with the subtleties of political thought that she didn't always quite have the patience to master on her own.
During that first term, our tutor was around thirty-five and I first noticed his evident charm when he offered the lecture on Madame Bovary a couple of weeks into the course. He was a convivial enough tutor but it was as a lecturer his charisma was most evident, and especially discussing books he knew well and loved. Madame Bovary he obviously usually taught in French but he was more clearly qualified to teach than anybody else in English too, even if he did so with an accent that made some of the remarks difficult to decipher. But he spoke about the book with a passion that none of the other lecturers managed to convey and perhaps if Sam hadn't been receiving attention from so many men she might have been more taken by Jerome Menard. Yet I remember her also saying that a friend of hers I knew, Rosie, was distantly infatuated and it would have seemed like a violation to their friendship to sleep with him even if Rosie had never made her obsession public except for one brief confession when she was drunk. But many seemed to be taken by the lecturer's capacity to bring together quotes from the novels with philosophical enquiry, anecdotal relevance and a sense that he hadn't just taught the book in the past but that he had read it out loud in bed to lovers. Most lecturers gave the impression they were offering notations to their secretary or putting together a list of items they wished their child to pick up from the local store, but Menard discussed Emma's affairs, for example, her finances and her frustration with her husband with the inflections of a beseeching lover. He was known to have a wife in Paris who never visited his Old Town flat and lovers at the university who did. He lived in an apartment less than ten minutes away from his campus office and there were plenty rumours that he had over post-graduate students, office secretaries and others in the faculty. Someone said he wouldn't sleep with undergraduates and so never attempted to seduce Sam. That would have to wait.
She told me she had been living in London for a few years, worked on her PhD and managed to get funding for a post-doc. A further research project came up in Paris and three years ago she moved to the city assuming her French was better than it was, and partly because a lecturer who used to teach at Edinburgh happened to be there (namely Menard) and a contact in another university there was useful. She reminded me who he was and I recalled of course that a friend of hers had been infatuated but I couldn't remember Sam showing any interest in him. She said that she hadn't but that he had shown an interest in her, pursued her for a while in her fourth year. While they never slept together they did become acquaintances, and over the years that she was in London, they would occasionally contact each other. She supposed that she had been attracted but not so strongly, and knew that if you wanted to feel special, sleeping with someone notorious in the university for his philandering manner wasn't the most useful way to increase one's self-esteem. Indeed, she added, now sitting on the bench after I insisted she take a seat, that while she had assumed she had no interest in pride she only now could see that almost everything she did was based on it and how lucky she had been to go through her twenties without ever once sensing its loss. In Paris, it was all about that loss.
Over the next two hours, she told me in detail about that self-abnegation and I wasn't quite sure if in the telling she was exacerbating the loss or finding the means to discover a different type of self-esteem altogether. She said that her French was never very good: she studied it at school and got a B grade in her Higher, improved it a little at university but never became fluent, and lost some of it while in London. She found herself in Paris with no friends, a clumsy grasp of the language, and in a studio flat on the top floor of a building that was not much bigger than her room in first year at the Halls of Residence. In it, she was expected to cook her food, while also using the facilities and the shower, and she could never quite used to the proximity of things. Everything in the flat seemed too close to everything else, as though there wasn't enough space between the kitchen and the bathroom for her to feel as though the actions of eating and excretion were separate. She believed that Parisians have a sense of demarcation that other people don't have: living so close to each other in such small apartments they claim a greater sense of self she believed. The ego becomes impregnable as it can't find the room it needs spatially so instead insists upon it psychically. At least that is how she saw it, and that is perhaps where things went wrong.
The apartment was on the edge of the 5th arrondissement, next to the 13th, near enough to the university but also near enough to many of the cafes she liked in the 5th, cafes she had visited on previous visits to the city. Yet she never settled in and in the first month, there were a couple of incidents that destabilised her. The first was when someone who had the code to the building hammered on her door late at night. He was looking for his ex-girlfriend and assumed she was still living there and for five minutes she sat as silent as she could while he harangued his imagined girlfriend with insults so varied that it was as if he were thumbing threw a thesaurus as he yelled them. Half of the words Sam didn't understand and the other half that she could comprehend she felt forcefully. When he left, she assumed that he guessed she wasn't there (one of the insults focused on her sleeping over at some other man's place), or that she had moved out. Sam hoped it was the latter but for the next few weeks, her nerves surmised that he would be back. He didn't return but the slightest noise in the corridor or in the floor below, or on the stairs, terrified her.
The second incident was subtler. At one of her first meetings in the department, someone asked her a question and she understood only half of it. She claimed in her proposal that she was fluent in French and the person stared at her for a moment, and then a moment longer, and then offered the question again in an English which was much more fluent than her French. He didn't say anything else but the tone of the asking contained exasperation. She managed to answer in a French that she suspected had a minor error in it and she reckoned she saw in his face a wince. She didn't dare look at the faces of others at the meeting. By the time she met up with Menard two months afterwards (he had been in the States teaching for a semester) she realized how isolated and lonely she had become in the hug she gave him. She held him for longer than she felt was comfortable and at the same time felt comfortable in hugging him.
Social values and emotional values were in conjunction and contradiction and she couldn't let go and knew that she oughtn't to hold on too long either. When she said this I thought momentarily about how I had always seen her possessing a killer instinct as opposed to a desire for death or simply for survival and found myself thinking later that evening, after her divulgence, that perhaps one way of seeing social values isn't as a superficial necessity next to our biological and emotional needs but a means by which to protect ourselves from our own always burgeoning chaos. But whether pursuing the death instinct or the killer instinct, these were antithetical to the social values that protect us: that whether insisting on destroying anything that happens to be in our way, or allowing anything to destroy us, one foregoes social niceties. I suspect what happened to Sam was that she had never realized before that her killer instinct was both relatively benign and mainly unconscious. At university, she never stayed in a situation that wasn't entirely satisfactory to her needs. While many others would sit looking bored, smiling politely, or trying to avoid grimacing with irritation, Samantha would get up the moment she no longer wanted to be in a person's company and gravitate towards wherever her curiosity, or vanity, would take her. Several times in bars I saw her accepting drinks from attractive men who she would chat to for an hour before suddenly a glance across the room from another meant that she quickly made her excuses and off she went, receiving more drinks, fresh attention and, possibly, if she fancied, an assignation. She always prefaced any drinks she received with variations on the comment that this obliged her in no way to spend the evening or the night in the company of the man whose generosity she appreciated. She liked being direct and didn't want to exploit any man unless he insisted on being taken advantage of. Forewarned is forearmed she would tell them and some laughed and bought the drinks anyway; others looked instantly crestfallen and gave up, still others insisted she buy her own as she stayed and talked anyway. The point was that no matter the situation she insisted it was on her terms.
As she hugged Menard she would have known instantly that this wasn't on her terms at all, and yet she couldn't pull away, couldn't rely on her instinct as if aware that somehow it had shifted from one of immense power to that of powerlessness. That evening Sam and Menard (who had not long divorced his wife) had met for a drink at seven in a cafe around the corner from Square Rene Viviani, after Menard bought a couple of English language books from the famous book shop next to the square, and they continued on for dinner at a restaurant on the other side of the river in a square off Rue Oberkampf. Menard suggested it and Sam wanted to walk, so any restaurant that allowed her to move from one place to another and remain in the company of another person, and especially one she remembered from Edinburgh, appealed to her. After dinner, they crossed the road to a bar that stayed open late and it was after one in the morning when she realised she might miss the last metro. Menard hurriedly announced that he lived nearby, that she could stay the night at his, but she insisted she must get home and kissed him on both cheeks, hugged him again for as long as she could whilst constantly aware of time, and rushed to catch the tube. Menard said he should accompany her but no, she would be quicker getting there on her own as she hurried to the station. The line was direct but she missed the last train by a couple of minutes and though she gave some thought to messaging Menard to say she would stay the night at his place, she felt that his plan all along had been to get her to sleep with him, or at least in his apartment.
It was as though he knew how to exploit vulnerabilities without revealing his own and for the first time in her life Sam seemed to think that was troublesome; since she no longer believed that she could protect herself from need, she had to be careful who she might allow to exploit it. She thought that when she was at university, when she was in London, while she took advantage of people's generosity, she never knowingly took advantage of people's affections. If a man insisted on paying for her dinner that was his affair; if he started to develop feelings for her somehow she believed that was hers. A man with an empty wallet she could have on her conscience; a man believing that without her he had an empty life she had always tried to avoid. It was why when she took advantage of men's financial means she usually did so by seeing how instrumental their desire happened to be: if they wished to get her into bed that was a good sign. She may or not sleep with them but she reckoned that they were seeking pleasure more than love, sex more than affection, and if she denied a man sex after he bought her dinner then he would just have to write it off as a bad investment. But while there were men she worked with, and others she knew, who she suspected had feelings for her, she never allowed them to buy her gifts, treat her to a meal, nor would she accept drinks from them, reckoning that this would be an abuse of power rather than a failed or successful transaction. I said I remembered well a couple of people at university who were clearly in love with her and that she never encouraged their affections, never exploited their feelings, while quite often on a night out she would get literally drunk on the kindness of strangers. It was an ethos she proposed, shrugging as she indicated that it didn't help her when she herself became vulnerable but might have if others played by the same rules.
Walking home at 130 in the morning in Paris didn't feel safe but she hadn't felt safe since shortly after she arrived in the city. However, she didn't hail a cab, determined perhaps to conquer any fears she may have by insisting to herself that if she could walk through Paris in the middle of the night what other fear should she worry about? She was more exposed walking along Boulevard Voltaire, down Rue de la Roquette and across Bastille, along Boulevard Henri IV and across to the other side of the Seine. She didn't arrive until almost three o'clock but when she was inside her flat and had locked the door she felt like the city no longer had the better of her.
The following day was Saturday and she walked for miles around the city, walking from her flat up past the catacombs, through Montparnasse cemetery, along and through Luxembourg gardens and visited the Rodin museum before returning home down numerous small streets she would never have any need to pass. The next day she took a metro to Montmartre and walked all the way back. On that Sunday afternoon, while taking a break from walking, drinking coffee at an exorbitant place in the 9th, she received a text from Menard. He hoped she had managed to get home safely and that if she was free that evening he would love to meet her for a drink, perhaps even dinner again. She initially wished to ignore the text, then wanted at least to reply, and then after thinking about it decided that if he was willing to meet her over at the cafe in which she was sitting, why not? Before making a decision, the waiter came over and, since she had been there for more than an hour, re-reading Sentimental Education, seemed to suggest that she should move on or buy another drink. She had ordered the cheapest drink on the menu (an espresso) and perhaps he thought that she would steadily move up the scale and order a beer or a glass of wine. She looked on her phone to see if there was a cheaper cafe nearby, found one on Rue de Chateaudun, left the four francs on the table, and sat on the narrow terrace of an indistinguishable street, drinking espresso for half the price. She also sent Menard a text, saying if he was free now he could find her at the address she sent him. As she waited for a reply, she wondered why she suggested a meeting. She felt far stronger than she had two days earlier and also thought she couldn't have a better person to sit and talk about a Flaubert novel with than Menard. He replied within a few minutes and said he would be there within half an hour. She continued reading the book and read a passage where Flaubert describes a moment of seduction, where a woman puts a flower petal between her lips and holds it out for the man to nibble.
Menard arrived on a moped, pulling in next to the pavement with confidence, indicating he felt completely at home in any part of the city, yanked off his helmet and came towards her table suggesting that he too could have put a petal in his mouth and asked her to nibble on it. They talked about the book, more generally about Flaubert, and more generally still about literature. They stayed till ten at night, sharing a platter of cheese and meats, pickles and sun-dried tomatoes, and drank slowly a bottle of wine. By the end of the evening, her fear and loneliness had faded into a blur, and she waited for Menard to invite her back to his apartment, wondering if he had a spare helmet in the storage space under the seat. Instead, he said that while he enjoyed the evening very much he had a lecture to prepare for 9 the next morning and needed to go. He would contact her soon. He went up to the counter, paid the bill and kissed her on both cheeks, while she would have wished for a hug, and left, jumping on the moped and driving off with the same insouciance as when he arrived. She put on her coat, said goodbye to the waiter and walked along to the Metro station. She was desolate and couldn't quite understand why. It may have been that she was alone again in Paris, that she had expected Menard to ask her back to his flat and she would have been in a position to choose. Instead, the choosing was done for her. It may have been that this was the evening where she started to fall in love with Jerome. But finally, and retrospectively, she would see that it was the moment her ego proved itself more fragile than she had ever realized. It was the first time a man had insisted on paying for dinner and at the same time insisted that he didn't want to go to bed with her.
Perhaps in other circumstances, such a feeling (since at the time it wasn't a realization) might have been tolerable but instead left her with an emptiness that suggested for a long time she had lived with a false fullness. She surprised herself the following lunchtime by sending a message to Jerome, saying she enjoyed the discussion immensely and hoped they could meet up again. Initially, she had written that she couldn't wait to meet up but saw in her response the tautologically needy. Wasn't it enough that she had texted first to show a hint of desperation? Enthusiasm in the text needed to be muted. She waited all afternoon for a text which didn't arrive, and when he still hadn't replied early in the evening she wondered if he had gone home to prepare a lecture or gone off to sleep with someone else. Thoughts and possibilities swirled through her mind, generating anxiety she couldn't quite understand but which was alleviated around ten that evening. Jerome texted, twenty-four hours after leaving her the previous day, saying that he enjoyed the discussion very much too and they should meet up again soon. He was looking forward to it. Initially, she felt soothed and calmed by the text but as she struggled to sleep, she saw that it was vague and procrastinating: there was no mention of a given date and she wondered how long she might wait before he gave her a time and a place.
Though she thought about Jerome throughout the week she was also becoming more engaged in her research: she was looking at marginal figures in 19th-century French fiction; marginal in the sense of peripheral to the text and socially peripheral too: maids, cooks, concierges, shopkeepers and manual workers. She was focusing mainly on Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal. A comment Jerome made during their discussion struck her and she felt struck by it: that he reckoned literature loses much of its value when it leaves behind those with time and leisure and focuses on those who work for a living. Most great literature comes from idleness, he supposed, and much great living too. She knew little about Jerome's background but had always seen in him an academic who saw work as a necessary evil rather than a purposeful activity. He sometimes said in lectures that while he should have been up half the night reading secondary material on the class he instead picked up a copy of a novel he had been meaning to read for pleasure and focused instead of that. He said a university lecturer's job wasn't to accommodate the needs of his or her students but to accommodate the needs of his or her own mind. To be well-read was far more important than a diligent consideration of going over and over again certain book sand reading endlessly mediocre criticism about great works. He was an exciting lecturer and tutor but a lax advisor. No student who worked on their final dissertation with him felt he helped them. He never asked them to send in drafts of their work or suggested consultations. Academia was the chance to read and to think, to talk and to pass on information he thought of sufficient interest without feeling obliged to a set curriculum.
Sam instead saw it as a regular job, with regular practices and regular hours. She worked either in the small office she was provided with on campus, or in the national library not too far away from the university. She didn't every week-day manage to be at her desk in either venue by 9 but it was always the intention. There she would sit, working her way again through the novels, diligently taking notes and seeing how these peripheral figures would all but silently move in and out of the tome. Indeed, the only reason she was reading Sentimental Education the day she met Jerome was that on a few occasions she hadn't made it to the office or the library by nine and had to catch up. It was work, rather than leisure, though talking to Jerome about Flaubert reminded her how much pleasure literature contained. At that moment she envied him his interest in fiction as almost entirely an enthusiasm he had turned into a profession. If love always contains envy, then certain examples of it are more obvious than others: the ease with which Jerome moved around Paris, seemed now emotionally unattached and devoted to his work without at all being interested in his professional status (he never seemed to seek promotions), made him enviable more than loveable but this suggests that we should be careful about separating the two words. Looking back on her interest in Menard, Sam now thought, she envied him more than she loved him, which hadn't made it any the less problematic.
Menard didn't contact her again and two weeks later, after two weekends where Sam wandered around the city aimlessly, she feared the solitude of a third and sent a text to Jerome on Wednesday asking if he wanted to go for a drink that weekend. He didn't reply promptly but he did reply enthusiastically, on Thursday afternoon, saying that he would be happy to cook for her on Saturday night. He gave her the address and the door code, and though she was pleased by the invite she might have preferred if he had waited for her acceptance before sending on the address details. The text suggested presumption yet that shouldn't really have surprised her. She supposed he expected to sleep with her and she knew that she would say yes, even if she also knew she wasn't going to instigate it. On Saturday afternoon she went to the hairdresser, her first visit since arriving in Paris, and asked them to take off an inch and sort out the ends. She had always liked what she saw in the mirror, she admitted to me, knew that she was prettier than whoever else was sharing the glass with her and that day might have been the first occasion when she no longer felt it. She was now twenty-eight and she could see in the harsh hairdresser's lights laugh-lines developing and a hint of a wrinkle across her forehead. She blamed a three month trip to Australia after her PhD, where on two occasions she got mildly sunburned, but also those yearly visits in her mid-to-late teens to a holiday home in France her parents bought with her mother's brother, and where they stayed most of the summer. The young woman cutting her hair had no such lines, was probably five years younger than Sam, and also looked like she went to the gym each morning before she started work. Back in Britain Sam swam several times a week but she hadn't got into the habit in Paris and on the couple of occasions she had gone, in the 5th at Pontoise, the system baffled her. After finding a changing room, she changed out of her clothes and stood for several minutes unsure how to lock the door. If she pulled it shut how would she open it again? After standing around feeling gormless, someone abruptly told her to go and swim; a changing room guard would come and open it for her when she returned from the pool. It felt odd locking her clothes and purse and other items away without direct access to them until another person chose to open the door, and on both occasions she felt strangely violated. Especially after the second swim where she stood for several minutes waiting for a guard to arrive and unlock the door, doing so as if she owed him an enormous favour for the privilege.
She needed to find a different pool with a different system, she thought, looking at the hairdresser while Sam focused on that line on her forehead. Afterwards, feeling that her hair was lighter and fresher, glossy and bouncy, she started to feel better and continued along the street, arriving at Le Marais where she impulsively bought a new pair of jeans, a blouse, and three matching bras and panties of different colours: white, pink and mango. As she told me this I felt somewhere between an intimate acquaintance and a pervert and saw both the Sam who would offer such a remark provocatively as she knew how easy it was to conjure up a sexual image of herself in no more than a few words and a glance, and Sam now who knew that such a comment no longer had the same power. I wouldn't wish to exaggerate the loss of Sam's beauty. Looking at her closely as she spoke, all that had happened is that her hair was unkempt, her body about nine kilos heavier and her skin coarser. She could become again without much difficulty a woman who when describing her choice of underwear to a man would have plenty power over him with that image.
As she talked I wondered who else she had spoken to about her time in Paris and I sensed there were few friends she had talked and no counsellor she had seen. Why she was talking to me I might have wondered but suspected it rested in that initial alarm on my face when I saw her and a virus that had locked most of us up for months. It was the face of someone whose present expression reflected past unavoidable admiration and that on reacquaintance showed dismay. She was someone who received when we were at university numerous looks of approval and I suppose recently she had received instead no more than indifference. My face showed something active rather than passive and it wasn't positive. How could she not tell me her story?
That evening she did sleep with Menard, and though the sex was hasty, with Menard taking his pleasure rather than assuming he ought to wait and share that orgasmic experience with Sam, it was the sex her ego wished for rather than the self insisted upon. Though it never really improved, and nor did her state of self-confidence, it was as if she was getting the sex her diminishing self-esteem expected. It wasn't too long before it descended into masochistic games which in the past she had only ever played with the whip hand, so to speak. What before had merely been a bit of a game occasionally indulged in, became with Menard a world whose anxious parameters kept expanding. It wasn't enough that she would feel tied up at his flat for a couple of hours twice a week. In time she felt as though her whole life was tied up. He would text and arrange a meeting at a cafe far away from her home, perhaps near his, near Place de Republique, maybe up at Montmartre or out by Vincennes. She ordered a coffee or a glass of wine and waited. Each time people exited the nearby metro station she looked up and felt a constant sense of disappointment that Menard hadn't arrived. On other occasions, he did come, as though determined never to allow Sam to fall into the expectation that he would or wouldn't show up. The important thing was to keep her nerves on edge and so often she soothed them by making that initial glass of wine the first of several, while she sat alone, in cafes far from her apartment, getting drunk. Sometimes other men propositioned her, seeing in her loneliness they probably believed was more tragic than momentary: the terribly sad woman slowly recovering from a lost love, unaware that the lost love could just as easily have come as not come.
She couldn't have explained what exactly she was addicted to during her time in Paris. It wasn't as though Menard was a man she adored when he taught her or someone who made her see Paris afresh. It seemed more that in her first couple of months in the city she somehow lost her ability to see herself, that the person hammering at her door one night, and her feeling that her French was inadequate, helped damage her nerves and her confidence, mundane formulations that she had never given much thought to before because neither had been troubled. Yet troubled they were and she supposed the reason she was telling me about her time in the city was a way of putting into a large number of words what is often constructed in a phrase. Menard arrived at just the right time for someone looking to have those weaknesses exacerbated, to find in another person the displeasure they would otherwise have to feel on their own. Who needs to self-harm when another will harm you themselves?
Over the next eighteen months, Menard met up with her only on terms that suited him and there wasn't a single occasion she believed when he was available when she needed him. There were times when she phoned and was desperate to meet but though on occasion he agreed it wasn't because she wished to see him but that he was ready to see her. He said to her more than once she should never for a minute assume that he was a friend in need. Their desire for each other was based on animosity and to pretend otherwise was to falsify the agreement. This was the agreement put in place she supposed the first time she allowed him to tie her up on the third occasion she slept with him. He said to her that if she was willing to do this there wouldn't be a retreat back into anything resembling an affair. She agreed, aware that if she didn't he would ask her to leave and she wouldn't seem him again, but this wasn't the fear of a loved one leaving her; no it was more that if they broke up she might have to find another person who would treat her badly enough so that she could avoid being unkind to herself.
She didn't expect me to understand any of this; she still wasn't sure if she understood it either but all she could offer was that after she finished her post-doctoral research, when she knew that she could leave Paris, she knew too that Menard would no longer have power over her and that she hadn't destroyed herself. Another had destroyed her yes, but that was a desire that paradoxically could protect her afterwards. She still had a couple of months left on her lease when the virus arrived in France and she took the chance to leave her flat: she owed nothing on the rent and reckoned that in such circumstances nobody was going to chase her for leaving the place early. A month before she had finished her research and around the same time told Menard that she no longer wished to see him. She offered it in a text unsure whether she would be able to remain resolute but when he said that they must at least meet up to discuss this she sensed in his reaction a weakening of his power and wondered what might happen if she didn't reply at all. She left it that evening and woke the next morning to find three texts from Menard. She again didn't text back and again more texts arrived. By the end of the week, thirty texts went unanswered and she wasn't worried that he would stalk her because he had never once come to her flat nor her place of work. Yet one evening, about a fortnight after she first sent him a text saying it was over, and two weeks before she vacated the apartment, she woke at around 2 in the morning to loud banging. Inevitably it reminded her of the person hammering on her door shortly after she moved to Paris but this time she was curiously less frightened, knowing that it was Menard and knowing that the door was double-locked, that Menard couldn't know for sure whether she was still staying there: presumably he managed to access her address through the university but how did he know the information was still valid? He knocked intermittently for fifteen minutes as she lay under the sheets, breathing as gently as she could. There was no light on, and that Menard at no stage started shouting, or trying to force the door, made her wonder whether he was still finally the university professor who knew his limits, or just suspected he might be knocking at a stranger's door and at any moment someone might open it and punch him in the mouth. At no moment as he knocked did he say anything but she recognised his breathing. He wasn't a fit man, and the six flights of stairs had left him puffing by the time he reached her door, and the way he caught his breath reminded her of several occasions when he was out of breath after a sexual game,
Eventually, he went away and while each night over the next couple of weeks she worried that he might turn up once more he never did. She left Paris relieved that she would never see him again and didn't even think she would ever like to see Paris again either. She arrived back in Edinburgh, back home at her parents, and while she hadn't drunk any alcohol since arriving back from in France, she worried that she drank so much there it had affected permanently her health and her looks. I looked at her face and saw slowly appear her earlier self, the beauty not so much returning but neither having been ineradicably lost. As though once again reading my thoughts she said that now the lockdown had eased, now she was going out again, she was going to start running three times a week. I believed her and reckoned that her killer instinct was perhaps stronger than Menard's not only because it was he who at the end of their affair was banging on her door, but also because she seemed to sense that allowing another to practice their killer instinct was the means of a very odd self-protection. It was a means perhaps of warding off the death instinct. But what about the survival instinct, I wondered, and promised to talk to Sam about some of these things the next time we me. But on this occasion, she wanted to talk and I wanted to listen.
I asked her if she was in contact with anybody from university. She named three people and amongst them was Rosie, the one who was infatuated with Menard and who was unaware I was more than a little attracted to her. I'd mentioned it once to Sam and Sam didn't encourage me: clearly, Rosie's interests were elsewhere. Sam said that, after the affair, she was initially wary of talking to her about Menard, knowing that Rosie had been besotted with him for a couple of years, but when Sam brought the subject up she seemed happy to talk about it and not at all disconcerted even when Sam mentioned the affair in Paris. Rosie even understood it and maybe better than Sam did. Rosie said she wasn't too happy with herself during that time and was probably looking for the ideal failed relationship. What could be better than a lecturer fifteen years her senior who would have no interest and would have wished from her only sex and one-way admiration? She was looking for someone to destroy her; she was surprised to hear that Sam wished for someone to do so as well. Sam reckoned that were occasions in our lives when we all seek self-destruction but usually find its manifestation in another as though unconsciously aware that we wish not quite to destroy ourselves. Sam knew that I liked Rosie but never knew how much. I probably never knew how much but I don't think my attraction to her was troublesome or painful. I was always happy to see her, always wanted to know that she was okay, but couldn't claim really to know her even if I sensed that there was an affinity between us that she didn't quite recognize, and lay no doubt in an infatuation with Menard that was much more apparent than any interest she might have had in me.
Menard could articulate Rosie's feelings about many of the books she loved but was that no more than an apparent affinity, one that many people believe they have with someone who can articulate their passions but cannot share them. Is this what infatuation is; a one-sided affair not only in that one person likes the other without reciprocity but that the one unreciprocating is nevertheless speaking far more than to the other person? Stars function like this; writers too. The fan feels like the writer knows them; that they are writing about feelings that before then the fan thought was exclusively there's. But actually, the fan knows everything about the star or the writer rather than the other way round their love affairs, their childhood, their thoughts on numerous topics that can be found in interviews rather than in books. Sam explained that in one of her conversations with Rosie (and they had talked often in the last couple of months) Rosie said that to understand she was a fan helped her comprehend her adoration for Menard. There was no affinity; he knew nothing about her and why would he care?
Sam asked me if I remembered a conversation I had with Rosie not so long before she left Edinburgh and not far from where we were talking: over by the university square, in the gardens. I said I did very well, reckoned it was one of only two occasions that I recall an affinity between Rosie and me even though I sensed that if circumstances were different we might have got to know each other much better. Sam said for Rosie that talk on the bench was retrospectively more meaningful than all Menard's classes; that for all that he had taught her, for all the erudition he had offered and enthusiasm for the subject that he had expressed, it was sitting on a bench in a park with a fellow student that meant the most. I had been sitting in the gardens at George Square. It was the first warm weather of the year, the breeze was soft and the flowers burgeoning. There were one or two clouds in the distance but otherwise, the sky was blue. I was reading a book for a class later that week and I heard a voice saying that she hoped she wasn't disturbing me. She asked if she could sit with me for a little while and the voice she offered it in seemed so small, so beseeching that I wanted her to do more than that: I wanted her to nestle inside me and feel safe. She sat down and the first thing she told me was that she couldn't concentrate. She was supposed to read an essay and a story for a class later that day but every time she looked at the pages, the pages just looked back at her, a scramble of words reflecting the scrambled thoughts in her head. I said we could read together and for the next hour or more we sat silently while she sat and read the essay and story and I continued reading my book. Hers were both texts in German so I couldn't have read them with her even if I had wished, but afterwards she said that somehow the words went in: she understood what she was reading for the first time in weeks. We sat for a further twenty minutes in the sun but didn't say anything until I offered a comment about the story and she spoke for five minutes without stopping, telling me what the author conveyed to her, what sensations she managed to feel while reading it. As she got up to leave she asked if I would hug her. We hugged for what seemed like a minute but might have only been a few seconds. At the end of that second year Rosie left the university, and studied elsewhere, determined to escape Menard but regretting enormously that it meant losing out on friendships with Sam and others, and no doubt, Sam said, a potentially meaningful relationship with me. She had to get away, Rosie had said, as though whatever others could soon give her, Menard through no special fault of his own, had taken away. Sam found it ironic that, when they were in contact again, when Sam emailed her after getting back from France, after only very intermittent contact in the previous few years, Sam had suffered so much more directly at his hands.
It was now the early evening and the sun had a while earlier faded behind clouds and the sky was turning grey. I thought it was going to rain shortly but I asked Sam if she wanted to go for a wander around the graveyard before leaving. We kept our distance as we walked, stopping occasionally at a gravestone which carried tragedy in its elliptical telling: a mother dying six months after her baby child; the father dead a year after that. Were these horrible coincidences or all causally connected? We couldn't know, the gravestone teasing us with information but refusing to yield a categorical story. Afterwards, walking alone back to my flat, I wondered what story I might have projected onto Sam had she not insisted on telling me one herself, but I thought much more of Rosie. I hoped not only would Sam pass on the email address I gave her, but that Rosie might contact me and that sometime in the future we might find ourselves sitting on a bench, perhaps in a graveyard or at a park. It was an impossibility at the moment with travel so restricted but a possibility too in the future, which is of course where all possibilities reside. What we might call the hope of the past is something else again, but I sensed in my body the meeting of the two when I thought about Rosie, someone I hardly knew at all and may never see again, but in which hope resided nevertheless. There was no sense of loss in this absence; only a wish to augment with others a feeling that leaves us all with instincts intact. I hoped Sam's were becoming strong again too, and wondered how hard it is for us all to differentiate the various instincts we have within us.
© Tony McKibbin