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L’histoire de Mathilde

by Sara Freeman

I’d realized one day that it was something I could do and by the next I was doing it all the time—to the traffic warden, to the cashier, to the girl at the video store. And so I must have done it that afternoon too, that afternoon at Café L’Olympique when I first met Mathilde. I’d had the feeling right away that Ryan would like her. I’d found pictures in our apartment of the other women he’d loved and they had been overflowing sorts of women just like this one—not fat or anything, but open-mouthed, thirsty sorts of women.

Mathilde was sitting just a couple of feet across from me, drinking her coffee on the bench opposite mine. She was leaning forward, forearms on thighs, to get as close as she could to her book. It struck me that for all of the work her body was doing to say I AM READING, I didn’t quite believe that she was. But it was a passing thought, which allowed me to return to the image of Ryan leaning her over our bed and taking her from behind, fingering her while he fucked her. When I’d had enough of that, I sat her on our toilet. Door flung wide open, she laughed and yelled: ‘I’m in here, Ryan!’ I imagined her at my desk, working on a manuscript—her own—and Ryan, he was there too, rubbing her shoulders, asking her: “How many pages today?” in some foreign language.

“I can lend you the book,” the woman said, noticing me staring.

I was embarrassed and shook my head.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. I was in my own world,” I said.

“No trouble,” she said, “looks like you’ve used that one up,” pointing to my copy of Denier’s L’histoire de Maude, which outside the house looked battered and dog-eared and stained. I didn’t want to talk about Denier. I lay the book down next to me. I didn’t know why I insisted on taking him around with me everywhere either.

“On peut parler français,” I said instead, hoping I could practice a bit.

“I can show you a few stanzas, if you want,” she answered, ignoring my French.

“I can’t really understand them. Maybe you can help me,” she said, offering her book. 

“I doubt it,” I thought, but didn’t say it.

The whole thing struck me as embarrassing. Contemporary poetry is embarrassing. Contemporary poetry read aloud is even more embarrassing, but I was bored and the situation held some raw potential. At that point—mid-June—I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than a situation that had some give. I had spent the day in my sweat-stained nightgown struggling through one of Denier’s impossible sentences. Hypotaxis—that’s what they called it—a fancy word for a syntactical pain in the ass, a euphemism for meaning tied up into impossible knots. Sometimes I got up to move around a little from the desk to the kitchen and back. Sometimes, if I felt motivated enough, I’d climb out onto the fire escape and take a few deep breaths, look down at Café L’Olympique and plan my afternoon trip. Sometimes I made it down there for my coffee, sometimes I didn’t. 

Mathilde seemed, on the contrary, like something easy and lithe—a bunch of mellifluous and distinct clauses: pretty and sweet and funny and gentle and happy and young and not me and not Ryan and not work and not real. And then, of course, there were the trails of soft laughter and long blond hair that didn’t require brushing, skin so bright, it didn’t need scrubbing. So I sat there and we read poetry to one another. She was fun about it. She slowed down during moments of simple beauty and sped up when she encountered a difficult patch. I couldn’t help imagining that this is what Ryan must have been referring to when he talked about experiences he’d had before meeting me, which he had described as easy and natural.

Another thing you need to know about Mathilde is that she looked like the movies. Except for the one eye—the one slightly droopy eye that seemed only to reinforce the perfection of everything around it. In retrospect, I can’t help but think that she was putting it on a little bit—that droopy eye—by tucking her hair behind the ear and lowering her chin slightly, as if she’d been the subject of a lot of portraits. And then of course there were her breasts: heavy, beautiful, destined for sex. The kinds of breasts Ryan wanted on me, no doubt. Not that he’d said as much, but he had started taking every opportunity to cup mine when I was lying on my back. “Catching spills,” he called it. There are erotic possibilities in being flat-chested. I don’t need to list them here. But we’d mined those early on and I was left as I was.

But that’s neither here nor there. Mathilde introduced herself and our fates were sealed.

“I had a feeling I’d meet someone today,” Mathilde said, during a break in our reading.

“Me too,” I responded. It wasn’t entirely true. Static had been buzzing in my ear for more than a few months by then. 

“What do you do?” she asked and I had had the compulsion to lie—something I hadn’t done in a while—not since I’d met Ryan. I’d wanted to say: ‘I’m a writer. You might have heard of me. I’ve had books translated into other languages,” but I’d bit my tongue, had told her the truth.

“I’m a translator,” I said. “Mostly boring stuff. When I’m lucky, I get to work on a novel,” I said, blushing. I hadn’t met anyone in a long time. I had forgotten how embarrassing it could be.

“That’s really fascinating,” she said as if I’d let her in on a secret.

“Not really. I mean, it can be, of course, if you’re translating something good,” I said, “and complicated.” I laughed, finding the sound of my voice ridiculous.

“What about now?” she asked, leaning nearer.

“This one, well, it’s the most difficult book I’ve ever worked on. I think it might be impossible,” I said. 

“Maybe that’s what happens when you love something too much,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said. I thought of Ryan, the increasing complications there.

When I finally left the cafe, I took with me the kind of foreboding I’d come to know since meeting Ryan: the intuition of how good things might be with the simultaneous knowledge of how badly they might end up. In retrospect, maybe I was a little bit turned on when I met her. Maybe there was that too. 

It usually took me a year to translate a novel. That’s how long it had taken me with Denier’s first book. And that had been the big deal—the one that had gotten me a mention in the Gazette and The Globe and Mail and then somehow in the New York Review of Books. But I’d been working on this book for three months and only gotten twenty pages in and they were crap. I tried to blame it on Denier. He did have a way of writing women very sneakily. He understood them and didn’t like them much. Or maybe the trouble was the heat. Or maybe it was Ryan’s insistence that I keep my desk facing out the window rather than up against the wall, the way I’d wanted it from the very beginning. It struck me as unfair that I could see people on their bicycles or even in their cars and they got to go places and that I had to be sitting down the whole time not moving toward anything at all. Or maybe it was something else altogether—something that is impossible to pin down, looking back on it now. 

Either way, when Mathilde showed up in my life that second week in June, I wanted her there. She must have felt that too. A few days after our first encounter at L’Olympique, she showed up at my door.

 “I was in the neighbourhood, killing time,” she said, looking down at my robe.

“I look like hell, but come in,” I said.

“You’re a vision,” she said, laughing, then hugged me. She was warm and sweet-smelling.

She stayed the afternoon and I was glad for the company. She made herself at home right away, sat cross-legged on the floor and read Ryan’s art magazines. She sniffed around the fridge, opened a jar of olives and dipped her pinky in, licked it.  She waved her cigarette. “Can I?” I shrugged and pretended to work. I read the same sentence over and then over again, but with Mathilde in the apartment, Denier’s work seemed all the more irrelevant in its opaqueness. Maude, the main character, was getting on my nerves. She had a way of shape-shifting so that sometimes she made herself known to me, an uncanny amalgam of all the women I’d known best, while at other times I couldn’t make out even the most basic of her traits. Ryan had suggested I draw out parts of the story: a portrait of Maude, maybe a plan of her house, even scenes from the day of the fire. He knew I couldn’t draw, but that didn’t stop him. He happened to think that words were a lot of work, that they were for people who couldn’t do anything better with their hands and their ideas. And he was right, to a certain extent. Or so it felt at the rate I was going with Denier, a trickle every day—tiny victories over one clause, sometimes, miraculously, an entire sentence. He had insisted on drawing a portrait from my description of Maude, but I had been upset by his rendering. He’d added features in that I hadn’t imagined on Maude: long limbs and long hair, breasts fuller than I’d pictured. When I’d accused him of manipulating facts to make his own fantasy, he’d said, “That’s rich, coming from you!” which I had chosen to ignore. 

Mathilde smoked out the window while I tried to work. I hated cigarettes—the smell of them, the way they killed people. But Mathilde did something to smoking, made it seem like something gentle and innocuous. She did something to the place too, to the cracking and peeling paint, the unmade bed and unwashed dishes. She almost wore them, looked good in them.

“Such wonderful details,” she said, pointing languidly at the moldings, deformed by too many generations of careless re-decorating. I could tell she was having a good time, that she was the kind of person who could occupy herself without trouble.

“You’d have even better light if you got rid of this wall,” she continued, tapping it with her fingers.

“You’re probably right,” I said.

“You have the best view,” Mathilde continued, smiling, pointing to Café l’Olympique, to the Church on St-Viateur. “You must have great parties here.”

“No, not really. Not anymore,” I said.

“Anymore? What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing happened, I suppose I just stopped feeling celebratory. And Ryan works crazy hours anyway,” I said. I didn’t like the way it sounded. It didn’t seem right to blame it on him.

Mathilde didn’t respond. She seemed to be considering something.

It was true. I hadn’t had friends over in a while. I had had friends and suddenly I hadn’t anymore. I couldn’t quite remember when the change had taken place. I wondered sometimes where they had disappeared to, if they had all gone to the same place, all together.

It was hot, that was for sure, and so it didn’t surprise me when Mathilde suddenly began to remove some of her clothes. Just the sandals at first, but then her blouse came off to reveal a camisole with lace trim stenciling her breasts so suggestively, it occurred to me she might have seemed less naked if she’d taken all of her clothes off at once. 

“You should take this off,” she said, pointing to my shirt, to the sweat under my arms.

And so I did. I was wearing just a slip under there. Mathilde put on some music, something I hadn’t heard before. No doubt it had materialized just for her. We danced a little bit. Mathilde moved too slowly. I tried to imitate her, but I was embarrassed, wondered if I hadn’t been mistaken in inviting someone into the house like this. I couldn’t help but imagine what we looked like from the terrace at Café l’Olympique – two ghostly figures doing a strange, slow dance around each other. It might come as a surprise, but I didn’t like women, not in that way, anyway. I wasn’t in the habit of it. But Mathilde had skin so smooth, I couldn’t imagine any fissure on her or anything as messy as that.

“J’ai chaud,” I said and Mathilde fanned me with one of Jacques Yves’ catalogues.

 “Keep working. I’ll just sit here,” she said. I wondered what she did for a living, but I didn’t dare ask. I didn’t want to have to imagine her sealing envelopes or answering telephones. It didn’t seem right.

When seven thirty came along, Mathilde said, “I’m getting a little bit hungry.” She had moved all of Ryan’s magazines onto the ground and had dog-eared some of the pages. “I love this,” she would yell every once in a while and point to some object. “Don’t you love it?” she’d asked. They all looked the same to me but I smiled and said, “Yes. Yes.” It seemed only natural to make dinner, to eat together. In the kitchen, she sat on the counter and watched as I made food, the way I often did when Ryan cooked. I’d wanted to say to her: You can play me and I’ll play Ryan, but I reminded myself that I’d only just met her.

I made an effort. I roasted a chicken and tucked herbs into the skin and rubbed the whole thing with butter, taking great care in remembering how I’d done it before, that time Ryan had liked it so much. She said, “You’re a natural,” and I blushed. I hoped that Ryan would come home early enough to see us together, to see how much Mathilde had taken a shine to me. I thought maybe it would rub off on him. I didn’t know what I’d wanted to happen that night, but I’d started thinking that maybe the evening knew what it wanted from me, that I didn’t need to do anything at all. 

At one point, while the chicken was in the oven, Mathilde jumped up and said:

“We’ll need wine.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

She put her clothes back on slowly and I had to force myself not to look her way, not to stare at her. She walked out the door, leaving it wide open behind her. Alone in the apartment, I worried she wouldn’t come back, that I would have to spend the evening alone again. I was always a bit relieved, maybe even a little bit surprised that Ryan made his way home to me. Even when I was half asleep, and he brought a day’s worth of outside smells with him into the bed, I was always glad that he was back. It was only when he was next to me again that I could get the images out of my head: the blurred ones of Maude in her apartment, which I could only imagine looking something like ours, and all of the other women: the traffic warden, the cashier, the girl at the video store.

I didn’t have Mathilde’s number. I didn’t know where she lived either. “North,” she’d said at one point. I imagined telling Ryan the story of our meeting. “You sure you didn’t imagine it?” he’d ask.

But she did come back and dinner was lovely. We didn’t talk much and she ate very little, which came as a surprise. I wanted to ask: “How do you get so voluptuous?” the way someone might ask: “How do you stay so thin?” Ryan came home just in time for dessert. We were having cigarettes and some chocolate – I had started smoking by then. Mathilde had made it seem like the right thing to do. Ryan walked through the door and looked artfully disheveled.

“You’re smoking now?” he asked, not looking at Mathilde.

“This is Mathilde,” I said quietly in his direction as he walked over to the bathroom.

“I’m dying to take a piss,” he yelled back.

I turned to smile at Mathilde. She liked him immediately, I could tell. Her eye drooped extravagantly as she watched him move around the living room, dropping his jacket in a sexy lump on the floor. He went to pee but left the door ajar. A strong stream. He’d probably been drinking with Jacques Yves. He came back to the living room and smiled quickly in our direction. I could tell that he was tired.

“Pastis?” Ryan asked and Mathilde and I nodded.

 Mathilde looked different now that he was in the room. I noticed the small hairs above her lip that skipped with light, the strange opalescence of her skin. “Sit,” I gestured to the armchair, but Mathilde followed Ryan to the kitchen. I stood by the window and watched them. I had a sense that the world was the way it should be: me by the window and Ryan and Mathilde in the kitchen. The fridge door opened and closed. The ice clanked in the glasses. What were they talking about? I couldn’t hear. I craned my neck and thought I saw Ryan reach over and put his arm around Mathilde’s waist, but I couldn’t be sure. Ryan had always been very certain in describing the things he saw: this house is ‘amazing,’ this fountain is ‘breathtaking,’ this house has ‘perfect proportions.’ I think all of that certainty had done something to my perception too. I had never had that kind of certainty to begin with.

The two of them came back to the living room. Ryan sat on the couch and Mathilde moved around behind us, perusing the bookshelf behind the couch.

How many?” he asked me, pointing to L’histoire de Maude.

“Six ” I said, fiddling with something: the lampshade, the doorknob, the hem of my slip.

“You look tired. Your eyes are very red,” I said.

“You’re lying,” he said half-laughing. “I know you.”

“Double-spaced,” I said, looking down, thinking about whether or not he did know me, whether I could really say that for sure.

“Ok. Well that’s good. Better than yesterday,” he said.

“I’m not in competition with myself, you know,” I answered.

“I never said anything about competition,” he said.

I laughed quietly, looking down. We’d started talking this way by then—the way people did in novels—each one of us answering our own questions, paying attention to our own refrains. Not to mention Mathilde, who was standing by the windowsill, just a shadow against the curtains, asking nothing of us, but a presence nonetheless.


She left quickly that night, while Ryan was in the bathroom. I hoped she would come back. She had filled the house up with the life Ryan took with him every morning. After she left, I replaced one of the large bowls in the cabinet and noticed that the colander wasn’t in its regular place. I opened up all of the cabinets, suddenly terrified by the absence.

“What are you looking for?” Ryan asked, thumbing through one of his art magazines, cross-legged on the floor.

 “Were you reading these?” he asked, pointing to the magazines.

“The colander, Ryan, what do you think happened to it?” I asked.

“We probably threw it out,” he said. 

“Does that mean that I probably threw it out?” I asked.

“I said ‘we.’ For god’s sake, if I’d meant ‘you,’ I would have said ‘you,’” he said.

“It’s a colander,” I said, “I think we would have noticed.”

“Maybe the cleaning lady threw it out,” he said, joking.

He had found his way behind me suddenly and was pulling on my ear lobe, a little bit too hard. I pushed my hand down to his crotch. He moved away, moving my hand with him. He went back to his seated position on the ground.

“Maybe it was Mathilde,” I said quietly.

“Who’s that?” he asked, joking no doubt. Mathilde wasn’t the kind of woman who went unnoticed.

Later in bed, I hoped he’d say something about her, but he didn’t.

 “She’s beautiful, right?” I said.

“Who are you talking about?”

“You know who I’m talking about.”

“Not Anna again,” he said.

“Mathilde,” I answered.

He turned to me, “You mean Maude?”

I laughed. He was confused, blurry with sleep, with the booze and Jacques Yves. I turned around and closed my eyes. I thought of Denier and all the work I had left to do, all of the days of summer stretching endlessly ahead. I tried to picture Maude, but she was further now than ever, just a blur for a body, a blank oval for a face. I pictured the book instead; I knew its body perfectly, its tender spine and frayed edges. It struck me that if I wanted, I could keep the book closed, that I didn’t have to open it up again if I didn’t want to. Ryan turned onto his back. His eyes were closed but I could tell he wasn’t asleep yet. I moved in toward him, draping my arm around his chest. I thought of Mathilde, of the next time I’d see her. I assumed Ryan was doing the same.