The first time he had seen her, she was singing. It’s strange how a face can hide a voice. He remembered patriotic songs, for the most part. He had sung that too, in his youth. And all those tunes that called for revolt, change and dignity. The songs had moved him, reminding him of his own youth, his first steps in social struggles. The proof that one can do several things at the same time is that he was, at once, moved by the songs and seduced by her beauty. It was not on that day that he made the decision to renew his relationship with the militant past that he had betrayed for a life of order. He saw her again the next day, in the courtyard of the faculty. She was discussing with other students the problems of the day, the teachers they liked and those who only taught the art of lying and submission. That day, he realized that she was not only beautiful, she had a clear voice, with a low tone, which contrasted with the high-pitched cries of the young people who were talkative and stupid. She had accepted an appointment. He didn’t know what was going to happen. He knew the existence of small groups that had chosen the armed struggle. He knew about the think tanks that the police were constantly investigating. He thought about all these things as he entered the bar on Magloire Ambroise Street where they had made an appointment, without knowing that…
…as soon as she sat in front of him, in the least lit corner of the bar, his life would begin to turn back to that disowned past. In the dim light, he couldn’t make her out entirely, but he could see the grace in her every move. She did not look like the young people of her age, concerned with beauty and swag. Her and many others, had chosen to commit themselves to a cause that was close to their hearts. Her and many others, had decided to fight, to fight for their right to be. But Joanna, that was her name, brought to this activism something superior, a strength that overcame the banal. The banal! Wasn’t that the whole value of this struggle, this gracious student living only for justice, one day will she not end up at a banal street crossing, her war ending in a banal death? Unless cowardice pushes her first to give up this comedy, this poker game where life is the stake. Joanna knew that one day they would be caught, that a demonstration would go wrong, and that the police would be ordered to kill. Maybe it was this idea that gave her that little worried look at that moment. Did she know?
They ordered while a palpable silence settled in between them. Furtively, he contemplated her. Her face was calm but it was more the somnolence of a volcano subject to frequent eruptions. She seemed like the little girl who nurses the wounded paw of the stray dog. However, when it was necessary, she knew how to transform herself into this agent of justice, the one who defended the victims of injustice with an uncommon fierceness. He couldn’t take his eyes off her as she brought the glass to her lips.
She smiled at him then, the stretch of her lips in a sneer, not like that ecstatic smile he’d seen when she sang and her whole being seemed to rise in a sublime invocation.
– I have heard so much about you, sheshe in her voice of a woman enclosed in a nymph’s body
-Yes…When you were fighting.
He could not answer, suddenly feeling an embarrassment for this life he had chosen. Waking up at dawn every morning, his feet dragging towards the faculty ground, to deliver all his substance to these well-to-do people who, on a whim, would throw him a few bills, like fodder for the dog or pittance for the prisoner. Prisoner he was. In the jail of their hierarchy. Under the iron of their disdain. He was their plaything and he was ashamed of it.
-Why did you give up?” she resumed
-Because between living and dying, I chose.
-And are you alive? Do you feel alive when you look at injustice with indifference? When your brothers are killed simply for fighting for their right to breathe?
He smiles. Remembering a young boy, who, 20 years ago, gave a similar speech to a friend. He pitied this young girl with a haughty brow, confident that her war could change something. He too had believed in it at the age of 20, when, with his hands in his pockets, he went to one of their clandestine meetings at Pierre’s house. Man Dominique, Pierre’s mother, the mother of all of them, looked at them kindly, serving them the meager snacks that her meager means allowed. Life is lived with the means at hand. You can’t go beyond what is possible. Their tête-à-tête always ended in virulent declarations that sounded like war cries. Casus belli: injustice. They armed themselves with their banners and signs. A chimerical hope to destroy the foundations of a hierarchical and tyrannical society by means of striking slogans. But at the time, they did not know. Because they had hope. The world seen through the prism of their nationalism. Even when reality w-as ostentatiously shown, they thought they were pioneers of change. And he was leading that band (to freedom).
What happened, Jacques?
-What happened…Well the war ended, without victory or defeat. The surrender. What fear failed to do, money did. Where force had failed, deception triumphed. Some guys betrayed. For a few greenbacks and the hope of deserting this putrid land. There were several of us who stayed true to the struggle but I didn’t feel it anymore.
-What did you find by giving up? A salary, a house, a car and the chance to be part of the middle class. (She smiled sadly.)
He didn’t know what countenance to take, touched in his very being. He could only retaliate. Spreading invectives, surrounding her with virulent attacks against her ideals and her blindness of young unconscious. He knew. He knew the cold sweats at night, the clenching of hearts at the imminence of the gatherings. Wondering if this one would be the last. For as we grow older, our passion for life grows. Yes, he had been afraid. Scared to die. Afraid to pursue this dream at the risk of his life. Others had given up. Why not him? Why a whole lot of things?
He was begging her without realizing it. His unconscious desperation was such that he was crying out for help, begging a 20-year-old to help him make sense of his life. To help him understand his loneliness, the disgust that his own reflection was causing him. What had his life become in 20 years? It is hardly if he had seen the days passing. Identical drops of water from the same rain of solitude. Perhaps the life of this young girl, held the answers he desired.
-What’s the point of fighting?
She answered nothing, slid her hand across the table to take his. And she looked at him, one of those looks that seem to say: I know you. For a long time, I have learned your anguish and your tears, the horizons where you go to paint your dreams. I know you and I am with you. He paid the bill. And still holding Joanna’s hand, they left the bar of Magloire Ambroise where so many things were said, more in silence than in words. She sat next to him in the car, her eyes in the void, lost in a world known only to her.
-Should I take you home
– It’s still early
– Where do you want to go?
– To your house. To your little bourgeois haven.
His house was a string of two narrow rooms, rented at four thousand dollars a year. One bedroom and the other room served as both living room and dining room, plus a kitchen and a terrace. In short, it was the quintessential middle-class home. It smelled clean. The good man and the tidy life of all this beautiful world of the small bourgeoisie. The normal existence of those who get up early, work three quarters of the day and starve at the dawn of old age. They die without being able to boast of having lived. They die and the world does not suffer from their absence. Because they pass unnoticed in the middle of these millions of solitary souls who appear and disappear in the space of a pulse. And Simeon Jacques had chosen the life of these ghosts. Joanna followed him inside, into the dining room. Then into the bedroom, without a word. Perhaps they knew from the beginning that this evening would end there, or perhaps since their hands had touched and their eyes had spoken. He led her towards him. His senses made incandescent by her perfume of woman. His reason disturbed by the heat of the slender body of Joanna. In the middle of his passion, a voice named lucidity generated him scruples. Question of taboo. He was 40 and she was 20. But could he extinguish the flames ignited by this woman-volcano?
She answered nothing, slid her hand across the table to take his. And she looked at him, one of those looks that seem to say: <&I know you. For a long time, I have learned your anguish and your tears, the horizons where you go to paint your dreams. I know you and I am with you. He paid the bill. And still holding Joanna’s hand, they left the bar of Magloire Ambroise where so many things were said, more in silence than in words. She sat next to him in the car, her eyes in the void, lost in a world known only to her.
Are you getting a ride home?
It’s still early
<i’m going=”” to=”” go=”” home.=””
Where do you want to go?
Home. To your little bourgeois haven.
His house was a string of two narrow rooms, rented at four thousand dollars a year. One bedroom and the other room served as both living room and dining room, in addition a kitchen and a gallery. In short, it was the quintessential middle-class home. It smelled clean. The good man and the tidy life of all this beautiful world of the small bourgeoisie. The normal existence of those who get up early, work three quarters of the day and starve at the dawn of old age. They die without being able to boast of having lived. They die and the world does not suffer from their absence. Because they pass unnoticed in the middle of these millions of solitary souls who appear and disappear in the space of a pulse. And Simeon Jacques had chosen the life of these ghosts. Joanna followed him inside, into the “dining room”. Then into the bedroom, without a word. Perhaps they knew from the beginning that this evening would end there, or perhaps since their hands had touched and their eyes had spoken. He made her sit on him. His senses made incandescent by her perfume of woman. His reason disturbed by the heat of the slender body of Joanna. In the middle of his passion, a voice named lucidity generated him scruples. Question of taboo. He was 40 and she was 20. But could he extinguish the flames ignited by this woman-volcano? There, offered.
-Shh! Shut up and love me. Forget everything but me and my body. Look at me. Love me with the passion of your old revolts. I want to feel your war in my flesh.
Their intertwined rages, his frustration and her revolt. And Joanna, snake. Joanna who wriggles with all the ardor of a lively youth. Body of water. Joanna who puts in love all the strength of her hate. Joanna, the sensitive child. Joanna the feverish fighter. Joanna, the explosive lover.
They were lying against each other. Joanna was humming a patriotic song that he knew well. He would soon have to take her home, but he loathed to give up this interlude. Joanna, there, in his arms. A break from his loneliness. Once she was gone, he will find the emptiness of his existence, the bare walls of his clean house, his weary routine. Maybe Joanna would accept a continuing relationship with him. Who knows? And he wasn’t too old for activism. He could still serve… These thoughts surprised him. Suddenly, he was eager to get away from Joanna. Perhaps he felt the foundations of his existence slowly eroding?
He had dropped her off at her house and for two hours he had walked the streets, thinking as he tried to escape his thoughts. He didn’t sleep until very late that night. Joanna. His life. His life and Joanna, which now seemed to be linked. They met the next day at the faculty, she gave him a knowing smile. Later, he saw her singing again. For a long time, he remained spellbound by her voice. To the point of following her with his eyes in all her gestures. He knew that it was dangerous to go out with a student but after the prudence of these last years, he gave himself the right to take risks. They met that night and every night afterwards. Joanna often talked to him about her ideals. He had even been admitted to two of their meetings. These young people had awakened nostalgia in him, as well as the desire to fight.
Two weeks had passed. 14 days of clandestine love with Joanna. And the desire in him, constantly growing to risk more. For Joanna and for his past. The last two days, Joanna had seemed worried. She often met with the others. He didn’t know what was coming. Perhaps the romanticism of young people who tend to exaggerate everything, made a harmless event take the allure of a tragedy. She had called to tell him that they would not see each other that evening. He had agreed to a dinner with other teachers, something he hadn’t done in a long time. He arrived there around 20:00. After eating, they started talking. The conversation quickly turned to politics. They talked about the situation of many faculties where small groups had formed. And also about the faculty where Jacques taught.
-Tomorrow there’s going to be a lot going on there,” said an old economics professor, glancing at James out of the corner of his eye.
-What?” asked the others in chorus, Jacques’ voice overpowering those of the others
-The police got involved. I’m telling you that things are going to happen over there. Whoever lives will see. I don’t know anything more.
Jacques knew that this old fox was not telling the whole story. He apologized to his peers. He was in a hurry to find Joanna, to understand. He waited for two hours in front of her house before she finally showed up.
-What are you doing here Jacques?
-I was waiting for you
-I’m here now
-Joanna, tell me what’s going on. I’m afraid for you.
-I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
She held his hand like she did back there at the restaurant. He could only trust her. They kissed. Of these legendary kisses. This union at the crossroads of two hearts. He should have understood… She detached herself from him and was about to leave. He could see her in the pale moonlight. She turned around on the doorstep and looked at him
-You asked me why we were fighting. Do you remember that?
-You know, Jacques. We all die one day. All that matters is to be able to say that we didn’t live for nothing. That is the value of our struggle. One day, it will count.
And she disappeared. The next day. He never understood. He remembered that she was singing and that her voice was more sublime than usual. What had happened? That afternoon, everyone heard on the news that there had been a riot in the avenue…, which the police had managed to stabilize. Six young people were dead: four young men and two young women…Joanna was dead, but nobody said so…They had lost warriors, but the war was not over. And Jacques knew it. This time, he was going to fight it to the end. To its end or to his death. He wanted to have lived for her.
Here’s an imperfect translation of a story that I wrote when I was 14 years old. I remember being so proud of myself for writing it. It was for a competition where they give you the italicized part and you have to continue the story. I was so disappointed that I didn’t win that year. I don’t really know what to think about it now. I seem to have written one of those female characters that are just narrative devices in a man’s story. She is passionate, says all the right words and wakes the hero from his lethargy. I wonder what direction the story would have taken if I had written it today.
It’s always interesting and a little embarrassing (there are some really cringy😅 passages) to revisit old texts. I do believe that Joanna was the very first short story I knowingly wrote. She will always matter to me.