Toi/You by Remy Yva
Translated by Rita S. Nezami
I feel I loved you since my tenderest childhood. Even in utero you were my all.
You are my initial memory: Light reaches me through eyelids, which I open to find you lit by sunshine filtering through the swaying branches beyond the window. Then I was happy.
I always trusted you. It’s in your arms that I took refuge after running from the neighbor’s garden with stolen apples hidden under my shirt. Some kids said these neighbors, some biologists, kept from the world apples of a superb unknown variety. Even so I wished the earth would swallow me up . . .
In your presence, my friends were silent, bedazzled. The least shy said you were great. I blushed, feeling proud of you.
You. You never indulged in small talk with me; you never called attention to my braces; you never betrayed me.
In the summer, we installed ourselves beneath the old lilac shade that wasn’t refreshingly cool, but wrapped us in the intimate warmth of its tangled branches.
One evening, returning from the city with my father, I found a naked wall in the lilac’s place. At that moment, you pierced my heart. This loss of the lilac revealed my true feelings for you.
I heard the grownups say the lilac was cut down because it obscured the view from the guest room.
How I loved, in the half-light of this room, to indulge breathlessly in the exquisite pleasure, drowned in the duvet, curled up against you . . .
It’s you who showed us a dangerous game: climbing the wobbly ladder to the attic, where the family for many years piled old journals that published state secrets. Grandmother complained to grandfather about our behavior. He threatened to someday remove the ladder while we were up there. We didn’t joke around with him. He yelled and banged his fist so hard on the table that the great grandmother’s clock jumped. One evening, he made good on his threat, so, I took a thrilling leap into the void of that moonlit winter night and sank softly into a deep snowdrift. I thus experienced the sensual pleasure of flight.
You loved the loud hubbub of the guests cheered by vodka, elegant women, and kids running around the table, meaningless discussions, and pointless indignations. Grandfather couldn’t tolerate disagreements. Simply put, those who contradicted him were obliged to leave. I suffered from his totalitarianism. During these bustling parties, I withdrew to the library-room armchair by the window. Thanks to you I read all of Tolstoy. Also Dickens and García Lorca. I owe you my secret childish ecstasies with Maupassant in my hand.
My father’s love for you came naturally and without suspicion. He couldn’t have sensed in me, still a child, such passion.
Strangely, others always had doubts about me. My teacher, relentless about my grammar, refused to believe in the authorship of my writings. Outraged by my audacity, he even asked to see my father at school. But he will never put his eyes on you, and he will remain forever ignorant about the reasons behind my precociousness, which my father will put into words later.
You were witness to my first flirtations. I betrayed you by sleeping over at my classmates’. But you had seduced me long before. It did not shock me. Deep down, I belonged to you from the very beginning. And now, years later, I can still say that nobody and nothing ever exceeded the impression you made on me.
Why am I writing all this? You’ll never read this letter . . .
This insane tenderness I felt for you! It pushed me to feel sorry for Cherry Orchard; I despised the pragmatic youthfulness of Lopakhine, a man without roots. I was stamped as apolitical, which compromised my future; and you alone were the guilt-filled witness to my tears of humiliation, which flooded my eyes once I closed the door behind me.
I left you and returned. You always welcomed me. I was ashamed of you. You were so different from Bulgakov’s apartment! And from Salinger’s dorm . . .
You embarrassed me in front of my friends. So, I invented for myself another family who lived in an elegant neighborhood, a family cherished and known by everybody. I didn’t like anymore the incoherent background noise coming from your heteroclite guests, their jokes and the television programs. I dreamed of intellectual conversations with a handpicked, private social circle adept with refined allusions and subtle intuitions.
During burning summer nights, in spite of your preference for classical style, I devoured Colette, Joyce and the Bible.
During the winter months, I stayed in the city. One day, however, I had to return by the first train with a dagger in my pocket – it was a time of troubles. Grandfather was lying in his study surrounded by his library, half of which was appreciated only by me. My physician aunt fussed over him. Watching him, I felt tightness in my chest. His giant body held up the small, shrunken head with difficulty. The master who built, peopled, and supported the house — his exile dacha — was about to leave.
He was leaving in peace. You became an orphan.
Noticing me, he tried to lift himself and said weakly “Hey! Guys!” One of his daughters-in-law pushed me gently forward: “Go closer. Say farewell to Grandfather.” He grabbed my shoulder, or rather, clung to me to avoid falling, and looking at me without recognizing me, he cried out laughing: “Let’s go see girls!” I stepped back. I caught you trembling, you too.
Suddenly, you became old, sagging and hopelessly ordinary. As though you were feeding on my hostility . . . You and the whole atmosphere that surrounded you seemed rough to me. One evening, coming out of the theatre after watching a play by Ibsen in joyful company, in the city lights and laughter, I felt like a bird in a cage.
I wanted to live, to be free, and I escaped to faraway cities. And yes, you had no rights over me. I had! You had sucked up my youth. You will always be indebted to me. It is perhaps because of you that I became who I am. And I am nothing . . .
You remain silent. You can no longer respond to me.
All the others I had after you, very beautiful ones by the way, are left far behind; other men took care of them.
My frantic pursuit of success accentuated my nostalgia for sweet daydreaming that emanated from you, and your matriarchal serenity was preserved with care. I missed your protection. I fell back into your arms. You didn’t want me to leave in peace, even though you were a wreck!
I had adapted to you reluctantly. I hoped for a compromise, just to be able to survive. I believed I had to give a part of myself to be able to breathe. In the end, you are all I have left. You devoured me.
I was obsessed with the impression that you were pulling me back to the cozy carelessness of my childhood; you stopped me from growing up. You were the reflection of my weakness; your very existence caused my lack of self-assurance. It seemed to me that living with you perpetuated an infinite circle of images, as in Latin-American saga.
Nobody would believe in me as long as you hovered behind me like the shadow of
Perfidiously and little by little, I prepared my strike.
Now, I’m sufficiently far away from you to feel secure. Yet, in my huge, empty villa, I can’t recall without pain that you are no more — my natal home.
Remy Yva is a pseudonym. The authors of this prose poem are of Byelorussian and French origins. This piece received the “Prix de l’UFR d’Études Slaves” in 2006, a literary award from the Sorbonne University in Paris. One of the authors teaches at a state university in New York; the other is a diplomat and works at the European Commission.
Educated in London, Moscow, Barcelona and Paris, Rita Nezami earned her PhD in postcolonial Francophone literature. Speaking seven languages and translating from four, she has taught writing, languages and international literature for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Europe and the United States. Her translation of a novella by Tahar Ben Jelloun was published in The New Yorker in 2013.