Retired at Thirty

Vertical Lawn Show-Cut Short
Photo by Ian Burt

An essay from I Never Dared Hope for You by Christian Bobin
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

It could be the story of two lights. Two material lights — the yellow light of bulbs and the white of a neon tube. It’s night all around, nothing but darkness. Material night: bodies tucked in bed, cars in their parking spaces, animals in the forest. Yes, you could begin the story like that, or you could begin it with the end: the confusion of two lights, separate in space, separate in time, each igniting the same part of your mind. And the first light to begin with, the neon. It’s already several years old. It returns every year in late autumn and lasts until March. For years the same buzzing neon, the same milky white light wrenching the same bay window from the darkness at night, with the same figure standing in the middle of the window. You go by with the children or on your own, past the center for mentally handicapped people. A group of low buildings scattered at the end of a green lawn. By day what surprises you most is the green, the close-cut grass thirsting from drought, filling your eyes with despair. Green water, thin with boredom. An expanse of hopelessness, flattened and crushed, a web of green resignation. The grass is always the same height. It never ventures toward lushness, toward the carefree folly of kindergartens. Nor does it ever die or languish into blackened patches. There must be a gardener looking after it. They must have arranged for a gardener to look after the ailing grass, just as there are those who look after the handicapped people. Nothing must be either too dry or too high. Nothing must die and nothing must live. People on the outside often say: such dedication; how hard it must be to look after people like that; if I were in your place… You could say the same thing to the gardener: how hard it must be to look after that grass; such a uniform green; such a hopelessly green green; such dedication, such rectitude amid boredom, such loyalty amid lassitude. If I were in your place… But there’s something else to be said about that green. Yes, you could say: this green expanse, you’ve already seen it somewhere. The same thing. The same green melancholy, the same color of loneliness, surrounding private homes. A tiny little yard of green around families. When the good weather returns, the inferno of lawnmowers begins. The husband heroically mows the lawn, he’s pleased with himself, proud to contribute to familial duty, to transform the dissatisfaction of a week of work into a blaring noise. The color green, in painting, is obtained by mixing blue and yellow. The green of lawns is not a mixture of blue and yellow, but of gray and black. The gray of a week of work, the black of the Sunday that is never Sunday, nothing but the day before another week of work. And there’s more. There’s more to say about this green: this domesticated green, this green enclosure, it’s something you also find in front of big middle-class houses, behind the fences of private villas. There is a lot of lawn, too, an enormous quantity of well-behaved green. Around the mental poverty and the financial power. Wherever spirit is lacking and money abundant: lawns. Clear green lawns entrusted to the competent hands of gardeners. On winter evenings, when you go by the center for the mentally handicapped, you can’t see the lawn. It is resting in the darkness. It has returned to its original darkness. It has finished its work, which is to leave your vision helpless, the better to dissuade you from entering or taking a single step onto that green desolation, for fear that you might want to go and take a closer look at those people crippled in their mind, or at those sleeping on their money. At night you can’t see the center, only the bay window opposite the entrance, and the man standing in the shower of light, beneath the pallor of the neon. He stays there for hours. A big man in his pajamas, his arms folded over his chest. He stands facing outward, for hours, after dinner — which is always served very early in such places, like in hospitals all around the world, to make things easier for the personnel. Between meal time and bed time a dark expanse, a large lawn of time. There, between eating and sleeping, in the electric light, a man stands, in his pajamas. He rocks from one foot to the other, for hours on end. A fat man behind the bay window, a silhouette of black paper against a milky background. An enormous child holding himself in his arms, giving himself the lullaby he needs to go to the repast of sleep, the necessary courage to go from this minute to the next. That’s all. After the nasty green of the grass, that’s all you can see of the center for the handicapped: this swaying from one foot to the other beneath the moon of a neon light. Years go by. The image comes back to you. It’s like an appointment: the fat man in pajamas and the swaying of his body, from the right foot to the left. For hours. Hours, autumns, winters. Finally one day you go into the center. You gain access in the best possible way: without notice, without warning. You go in through the voice of the woman speaking to you. This woman speaking to you is going to pieces. She works at the center. She is not going to pieces because of her work. She doesn’t tell you much about it, just that the mentally handicapped can sometimes be nasty, and her words reassure you, as if reducing the strangeness of the patients to a slight difference within humankind— within it, not on the outside. As if the ability to be nasty were a sign of belonging to the same community, the same world. But she’s tired of talking about her work. It’s not the hours she’s spent in those buildings eroded by green that have reduced her to pieces, to dust, to ash. It’s merely a love story, a story you listen to without interrupting, a story to do with the other source of light — the bulbs. The woman talking to you is married, she has children. You see the children, but not the husband. This is an affliction you have, something wrong with your eyesight: you never see the couple in a couple. You never manage to see as far as two. You see one plus one, never the combination of the two. You have a childish aversion to any kind of society — and society begins with two, with disastrous speech of this type: my husband and I, we think that; my wife and I, we are in the habit of. It’s mainly women who want marriage. They want it with an absolute, insane will. The man submits to it, or so it seems. He enters into marriage the way one enters into a new profession. He learns its rules the way a child learns its lessons, complaining. Because he doesn’t expect much from marriage, the man does not despair of it and won’t want to get out of it, even in the case of bankruptcy— just the way you stick with a job that no longer gives you any pleasure, but that helps make ends meet. For women, it’s different. Men are like everybody, women are like no one. This woman speaking to you — her story is simple, on the surface. It’s the story of her passion for someone. They work together at the center for the handicapped. For months nothing happened. Then one day it was everything. Why that day, why not the day before or the day after, or never, that’s inexplicable. Nor does she seek to explain it. Rapture contains its own intelligence. The darkness of pleasure penetrates all light. In the beginning she lies about her work schedule. She comes home later and later. She spends part of the night with the other man. Then she talks to her husband. She tells him what is going on — the speed of an event she no longer has any control over. She is thinking of leaving, of divorce. The invisible story begins there. Invisible, beneath an open sky. The husband says nothing, does absolutely nothing. No tears, no lamentation. Neither the affliction of insults nor that of melancholy. Every night he turns on every light in the house. He waits. He waits in the brightly-lit house. She comes back in the middle of the night. She comes into the bedroom, lies down beside him and weeps — for a long time, silently. The story goes on for a century and then comes to an end. The other man leaves her. He leaves her but he is still there. They are still in the same building circled with green, still looking after the same people at the same time, every day. Salaried work was invented so you would not think about what makes you suffer, so every day those same hours would come when you weren’t thinking about yourself, or solitude, or God, or others, so you would not think about all that you suspect might be insoluble, heart-wrenching. And now there’s no way out. The passion is still there. It has turned to hatred but it is still there, intact. She says this with a smile: there’s no place for me anymore. Neither there at the center, not here in this house. There I’ve lost everything, here I’m given everything. But it’s something else that I want — something else besides a husband or a lover. In love stories there are only stories, never love. If I look around, what do I see: people who are dead or wounded. Couples who retire at the age of thirty or couples who make a career of suffering. I’m not interested in any of that — in falling asleep at home or insomnia outside. What am I waiting for — I don’t know. Maybe nothing. It’s very hard to obtain, nothing. When you’re a child they make you a promise. The promise is life. So why don’t they keep it, so why do I still keep hoping they’ll keep it, that promise? I’ll never become resigned, I’ll never retire. I no longer go out at night but that doesn’t mean I’ve come home. My husband knows that. He keeps waiting, he keeps using up electricity with the lights. Nobody has helped me the way he has. But what can kindness do against despair. She tells you once again how weary she feels, tired of herself and of everything. She evokes death, a departure or a new love the way you might talk about your upcoming vacation abroad, hesitating over which resort. Finally she laughs at herself, gets up, and puts on a record, a Vivaldi concerto. You listen with her to how the sound crackles, the dust of fluid song. This music goes with the night over the town and into the soul, a music rendering the night soft and deep, a purple night where only two lights are lit, in a building in the center, in a house in town, two images blending together, a single light in all the dark expanse, the blaze of an impossible life and this remedy that could extinguish the blaze, a single gesture: swaying from one foot to the other, the monotonous sweetness like a gift to oneself, enveloping oneself, a lullaby that one anguished heart sings to another.