It was the day Michel Leiris died. This would have been late September 1990, or maybe the very beginning of October, the date escapes me (whatever it was I can always look it up later on); in any case it was a Sunday, because I was home in the middle of the afternoon, and it was cold out, and I’d gone to sleep in all my clothes, wrapped up in a blanket the way I often would when I was alone. Cold and oblivion were all I was looking for back then, but this didn’t worry me. Sooner or later, I knew, I’d rejoin the world of the living. Just not yet. I felt I had seen enough. Beings, things, landscapes . . . I had enough to last me for the next two hundred years and why go hunting for new material? I didn’t want any more trouble.
• Suddenly I woke to the ringing of the phone. Darkness had fallen in the room. I picked up. And right away I knew it was her. Even before I was conscious of knowing, I knew. It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face came a thousand moments of happiness rising from the past, gilded with sunlight, caressing my own face and licking at my fingers while a thousand more like them swung at the other end of a wire.
I sat up in bed, heart pounding in my chest. I actually heard this going on, this unnatural pounding, as if my heart were electrified. I heard it thudding in every corner of the room—and this was no illusion, I wasn’t dreaming, there wasn’t any question of its being anyone but her. The senses don’t lie, unlikely as it was to be hearing her voice now, after all the years I’d never heard from her, ever, not once. How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the exact same day Michel Leiris died was my next thought, and the coincidence struck me as so outlandish it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I felt as if I’d tapped in to the inner hilarity of things, or else brushed up against a truth so overwhelming only a fit of hysterics could keep it at bay; but maybe it wasn’t a coincidence at all. Maybe she wouldn’t have called, it occurred to me, if Michel Leiris hadn’t died. Of course that’s what had happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear. However obscurely the one fact figured in the other, I sensed a connection. The significance of a dream, we’re told, has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.
But this was no time for a philosophical discussion, and besides, I wasn’t in any shape to bandy wits. I could hear how soft and gummy my voice was, how drowsy-sounding, and without even giving it any thought I realized that she must under no circumstance be allowed to know she’d woken me up. That was crucial, even if it meant sounding cold and detached—and why on earth did she have to call, not just on the very same day Michel Leiris had died but when I was fast asleep and at my most vulnerable, my least up to answering the phone, when in a word I was completely incapable of appreciating this miracle for what it was? In real life, it goes without saying, the ideal situation eludes us, and no doubt that’s a good thing for humanity in general, but just then I’d have done anything to keep her from guessing that she’d caught me sound asleep in the middle of the afternoon. It was out of the question. Either it would seem like a sign of weakness or else it would make me look churlish, to be caught napping the one time something exceptional actually happened, or then again she might draw certain conclusions—I didn’t know what conclusions, exactly, but still, I’d just as soon she not draw them. And no, I wanted to say, it wasn’t as if my life had devolved into one long slumber. It wasn’t as if I’d been languishing, stricken and alone, since she’d left me. On the contrary. I happened to be leading a life of leisure. I was in the pink. I was stopping to smell the roses, as the song so eloquently puts it, and couldn’t imagine why she might think otherwise.
Here was the strangest part: I completely forgot that I’d sworn never to speak to her again, and that she’d left me years before without a word of explanation, without so much as saying goodbye, the way they abandon dogs when summer comes (as I put it to myself at the time), the way they abandon a dog chained to a tree for good measure. And I’d circled my tree in both directions and climbed up into it and spent a long time—spent millions of hours, years—in the void, cursing her name in the darkness. Yes, cursing her, because her disappearance had taught me that I was a less exemplary person than I’d thought; but now the whole thing might ass well never have happened and all that mattered was the fact of her calling, and that the day for action had come.
How I had yearned for this moment! I’d been looking forward to it so long I already knew how it would go. I even knew what she was about to say because I’d rehearsed it all in my head, I could see myself softly explain that the past was the past, that the statute of limitations had expired, that it didn’t matter that she’d left me (or that she’d left me the way she’d left me), it was ancient history. Really and truly. I’d dug down to the root of my unhappiness and it had nothing to do with her, I didn’t blame her in the least, and in this cruel world we’re all innocents, we all do the best we can, and worse things are happening all around us even as we speak. Just this morning Michel Leiris had died, and yesterday the last of the Mohawks had laid down his arms, and tomorrow a war and/or scandal would break out and be replaced by something else, and in the end the world would turn the page before I did, and it didn’t exactly speak well of me that I’d taken years to get over her, and it’s not as if I was talking about the Movie of the Week, where love triumphs, justice gets handed down, liberty’s reestablished in the hearts of men, humanity regains a name and a face and the whole thing happens between 8:45 and 10:30, 10:35 at the latest—once I watched them save the earth from a giant meteor and even that didn’t take two hours—and I’m not the sort of person who mixes up real life and fiction, no more than anybody else does, but the conviction had snuck up on me that I, too, would smile again in my own ninety minutes, give or take. Yes, I’d be smiling again in a more or less similar lapse of time; her leaving had been a blip. There was something crazy about how far it had set me back. In retrospect, the insane way she’d disappeared actually seemed for the best. It showed panache, at any rate, and not every relationship leaves such a mark attesting to its existence. And I agreed with her, that was the thing, I agreed that she’d been fighting for her life. We couldn’t go on the way we’d been, and she’d been driven to get out by nothing less than the survival instinct, and she was sorry, so she told me she was sorry and asked me in a whisper to forgive her, and it made me want to cry, to let the tears run down my cheeks, hearing her ask over and over how she could have just left, after four years together, after all we’d lived through, all we’d shared; but she’d had no choice. She was in so much pain. And she was so young and felt so guilty, without knowing why, she felt guilty all the time—I’d never know how guilty she felt—and maybe it was society’s fault, maybe it was the fault of her family, she didn’t know, but in the end she did the only thing she could and went off with the first man who wanted her. And he was a nice man, and he loved her, and she loved him, too, despite his age and the fact that he was short, and now they had a little girl, and she was happy I saw it the way I did because (and she knew I’d laugh) she kept worrying that I might have turned into a bum. Sometimes on the bus she’d look out for me on city benches. She had this feeling that things had gone badly for me and it scared her. For years she’d been afraid of bumping into me. I had no idea how long it had taken just getting up the nerve to call, and tracking me down wasn’t easy either, and in the end she just wanted me to know how sorry she really was and to forgive her. I had to understand, it meant the world to her. And I understood. I was all understanding. And I forgave, for in my dreams I was great and magnanimous. And besides, what else could I say or do?
But this was her actual voice, not just some figment that I’d invented to fill the void and salve my wounds, as they say; finally I’d hear her version, finally she’d come out and ask my forgiveness and acknowledge the thing she’d done. I pictured her hand gently closing my eyelids so I could open them freely on other sights and love again with no second thoughts. Yes, she owed me an explanation— she owed me something at any rate, some kind of redemption, something to seal the tomb and lay the remains of our affair to rest and mow down the weeds and nettles that had grown up inside me, and afterward we’d never have to speak of it again. Why else would she have called me, after all? I wanted to know the truth of the story, its truth and its meaning. I wanted to cast off my burden. And I was ready.
But she hadn’t called to talk about the past. She didn’t even refer to the past, much less clear things up the way I’d hoped, and my heart leapt with anticipation, crowed with joy, rose high over my head only to plummet back into the shadows, burrowing down in shame before the dawning truth that she was calling simply to invite me to a party—and will it never end, this continual pinching of the flesh in disbelief?— a “big party,” to be precise. She was counting on me to come. It was important. She was asking as a favor, and she laughed faintly on her end while silently I kept telling myself that she had, in fact, called after all these years just to ask me to a party. As if nothing had happened and time had laid waste to everything and Michel Leiris were still alive.
Eyes closed, I listened. It was a birthday party for her husband’s best friend, her husband who’d finally married her and was the father of her child, and every year Sophie—that was the friend’s name, she was a “contemporary artist” (she said this in quotes), maybe I’d heard of her? Yes, exactly, Sophie Calle, the one who followed people in the street—anyway, every year this friend had a birthday party and invited as many people as she was years old plus a “mystery guest” who stood for the year she was about to live, and this year she was in charge of bringing the mysterious stranger and she couldn’t say no, and so she’d thought of me (another faint laugh), and that was the reason, the one and only reason, for her call.
On my end I was stern. Galvanized steel. Clearly I was the one person she could think of who’d go along with this little charade of hers, and besides I made an ideal candidate seeing as how no one had ever heard of me. What’s more, I thought, the mission must have actively appealed to her since, by picking up the phone just to invite me to a party, she’d overcome certain obvious objections raised by our history. She could hardly have acted in a spirit of pure disinterestedness, put it that way. But couldn’t she have come up with a better pretext to see me— and did this mean she wanted to see me? Anything was possible. But why did she need a pretext? All she had to do was call and say “Let’s get together” or even “We should get together” or better yet “Could we get together?” and if only she’d put it that way—any of these ways—she’d have acknowledged the ties that bound us, and always would, even if we were parted for hundreds of years, and then I’d have come running with a beating heart. But what did she mean by inviting me to a party?
Who did she think I was? It was absurd, and I’d been kicked around enough, and yet I heard myself answer, in a voice that was almost chipper, that I’d be there. Consider it done, I told her. She could rest easy, I’d be her mystery guest, and all the while I gnashed my teeth with every fiber of my being. She sounded unaccountably relieved. No sooner had I spoken than her voice regained its scent of forget-me-nots, and I took down the time and address on a scrap of paper; then, without my knowing how it happened, she’d hung up. Not that we had anything left to say that could have been said on the phone.
My hand shook as I set down the receiver. The room was silent, the air livid, and the telephone sat chuckling on the bed until in my rage I lobbed it across the room; but it didn’t even come apart, and for long seconds I lay there listening to the dial tone in the dark. And that was even worse than before. So I got up to put it where it belonged and hung it up, and I didn’t know what to do, and I took a walk from one end of the apartment to the other, which didn’t take long, and—that was the bouquet. No other words came to mind but “C’est le bouquet. This time, it’s really the bouquet.” For a good hour I paced the apartment repeating those words out loud as if they were the sum total of my vocabulary. All the same, the blood was fizzing in my veins: I couldn’t deny feeling a thrill at the thought that I was finally about to have the meeting she’d owed me all these years. I was happy to make a fool of myself at some glamorous party. I’d gladly undergo much more painful transformations just to see her and finally hear her explain what she’d been thinking and cut the leash that bound me to her vanishing and put an end to this strangulation once and for all. I wanted answers. The rest of my life depended on that party, I knew that for a fact, and that night I dreamt of a horse trampling coattails in the dust.
Excerpt from The Birthday Ceremony
On my birthday I always worry that people will forget me. In 1980, to relieve myself of this anxiety, I decided that every year, if possible on October 9, I would invite to dinner the exact number of people corresponding to my age, including a stranger chosen by one of my guests. I did not use the presents received on these occasions. I kept them as tokens of affection. In 1993, at the age of forty, I put an end to this ritual.
First Mariner Books edition 2007. Copyright © 2004 by Éditions Allia. Translation copyright © 2006 by Lorin Stein. Originally published in 2004 by Éditions Allia, France, as L’Invité mystcre. Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.