A matter of no importance

by V. Daskalakis

I hadn’t been planning to return so early to the boarding house tonight — quite the opposite. As I was meeting an acquaintance from America, who passing through Paris, I was planning to have dinner with him, and then he would want, of course, to visit one of the cabarets in Montmartre, which are a must if one wants to say they’ve done Paris. So the evening would go by — we’d have a glass with jolly female company, and it would go by. It wouldn’t be great, of course, because I am quite sad tonight, sadder than I’ve been in a while, and I know it wouldn’t be easy to break out of this mood. An unbearable emptiness has taken hold of me since morning — but unbearable. As though I’ve found myself alone in the entire world, and everything is empty inside me. And the more I recognise this, the angrier I become, because I know the cause, and the cause is of no importance whatsoever. In fact, I’d say it’s farcical. A damn woman, a girl I met on the boulevard, and who had been staying with me for a while, left today. Big deal! And had she left on her own accord, had she abandoned me as they say, then fine. I’d be able to justify my sorrow: it’d be the hurt to my masculine pride. But I myself sent her away, without her having given me any cause, I told her coldly and definitively that she must leave at once; and not on the heat of the moment, but calmly and with many days’ premeditation. In fact, I had been growing annoyed at my own indecisiveness on the matter — always postponing telling her my decision that it was time for this silly story to end. It had gone on long enough.

And yet: while I got out of it, and so easily and without fuss, yet: not only do I not feel carefree, but I am miserable, to an extent that I am ashamed of myself. At times, all day today, after reading the letter I found, my eyes well up as I’m walking — it’s all I need for an acquaintance to see me and laugh at me. That’s what’s upsetting me the most, and I begin to doubt whether I’m a man with will, or some yokel. A friend of mine, an official at the embassy, who had lunch with me, forced me to tell him why I was so dejected, and he declared, bursting with laughter, that I was, after all, not a man of the world. And if I’m angry, it’s because he’s right. What nonsense, to be miserable over such a trifle! How it seems, after all, that I’m a yokel. He’d have sent her packing, kicked on the behind for good measure. For God’s sake.

… I missed my date with my friend from America, forgot myself walking about, and turned up fifteen minutes late, and he had left. I’m in such a state tonight that I cannot put into words how much this upset me — as if I’d lost my last hope in the world; and I stood there for ages, waiting, looking around just in case he reappeared. But alas! People visiting from America, I told myself, come with their schedules planned by the second, striving to ensure no minute is wasted. But, had he known the hurt he caused me, leaving me alone tonight, he’d have waited, he’d have been patient, like I was, devil take him, waiting for him at the Louvre, where he stood silently admiring the worst works of art. He had put down Louvre for two hours in his agenda, as mandated by his guidebook, and he did not mean to leave until he had done his two hours.

In the morning, when I left the boarding house, I left very early on purpose, and Eveline was still asleep. It had been many days we had been bickering— or, to be honest, that I had been snapping, to get her to leave on her own accord. But I was becoming genuinely angry, more so by the day, that she had not already left. I spoke roughly, or did not talk to her at all. I had stopped taking her out with me, I would arrange for her to have dinner by herself in the room, and when I came home late at night — especially after hanging out with friends who’d tease me, asking whether I had finally managed to get rid of my amore — I saw that she was scared to see me, and would run to greet me, and often I’d see she had been crying, even though she was trying to hide it.

I was incredibly annoyed with the situation. Every time I would come home late at night, I would be thinking, there is no way, surely, I will find her home — she will have left. I made sure to leave a lot of money on the bedside table, and would stay out even later, on purpose. And as soon as I opened the door and stepped in, the same story — she would hear my footsteps on the corridor and would run to open the door for me. The lamp with the green shade would always be on, there by the corner, on the little table by the armchair, a book left open on her hands, or perhaps a shirt she had been mending for me.

I spoke roughly, or did not speak to her at all. But — damn it — it wasn’t easy to maintain my resolve. At times, her face — if I happened to look at it at those moments — reflected such a deep and scared confusion, the way she’d focus her eyes, that it was impossible to carry on my plan, and I would become gentler. That’s what my friends what to say about me, that I was easy to manipulate, like a yokel. I myself regretted it every day, and it bothered me the next day, that I lacked the courage to end this affair.

But, if one thinks about it, I was — damn it! — right to be annoyed, because she never gave me cause, the slightest reason, to end things. She did not give me the slightest cause. I forced myself to act this way, I forced myself to act that way — nothing. I had resorted to walk down different streets and go to different places, which I had never frequented before, to avoid running into people who knew about me and Eveline. The thought that I’d be asked a question, or teased, upset me to no end. The issue was not the teasing itself — after all, I could put people back in their box — the issue was with me. It was with this wretched weakness I was beginning to see in my character, the inability to extricate myself from such an everyday matter.

I had found a spot in a coffee house, and would sit for hours in the evenings these last few days, and concentrate. The truth was that, if I thought about things, I could see clearly that this girl was winning me over, that deep down she succeeded in some mysterious way to wake in me an unjustifiable sympathy that was growing stronger by the day. That was the truth. She did not complain at all I didn’t take her out with me like before, and non only that, but she did not go out by herself either, as I had thought she would —other than going out on my behalf, if I had asked her. She would spend all day inside, as though it was her pleasure to stay locked in, tidying up or finding things to do. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that my room had never been decorated with such taste, never had my things been so tidy. I never lost a handkerchief or sock, nor were any mistakes made with my bills. She kept a pen and paper in her bedside drawer and recorded everything, in such a way that I never had to worry about my affairs. At times I was impressed that, while she made sure I missed nothing, not the slightest thing — blades for my razor, or paper for my desk, the kind I liked to scribble on in the evenings — she was completely neglecting herself. The last few days she was not even putting make up on.

“I saw some lovely shirts, at good price, and I think you’d like them for work” she’d say.

“Fine, buy some” I’d snap.

She would look all over Paris to find exactly what she was after, and find it at a good price. And I must admit that in this too she had excellent taste. If I happened to forget myself and show that I liked what she bought me, and she noticed me being pleased with it, you’d think someone had gifted her the sky — that’s how happy she was, even though she tried to hide it so as not to annoy me.

Last Thursday I found myself vulnerable, and as she was talking to me about the Swedish ballet that was performing at the Châtelet — about how it was a wonderful performance, how it had elicited good reviews, how I should not miss it — as I found myself vulnerable, I said

“Fine, fine; book me two tickets for tonight”.

It seems she didn’t understand me. I came home on time, since I had forgotten my resolve and told her we could go; but I found her undressed, doing her chores.

“Aren’t you coming to the theatre?” I said, with heavy emphasis on each word, ready to grasp the opportunity to end things. What, she’d start sulking now?

“You meant the other ticket was for me?” she said half-confused, half-happy, and it was obvious she had not even considered that possibility. “At once! Thank you!” she said. “I won’t be a minute!”

My misunderstanding threw me off, and I could not find anything to say while she was rushing to get ready, other than that it was fine, we were not in a rush, we still had some time.

Besides, she dressed with great taste also. Her eyes were blue, deep blue, and complemented her thin blonde-brown hair. Tonight that I am in the grip of this unjustifiable sorrow, I keep remembering this last date on Thursday evening, and against my will, I keep remembering how quietly happy she was, and how rough some of my own behaviour was. I’ve had some wine, so maybe that’s it. But — if I think about it — she inspired respect in everyone, even though she was a woman of the boulevard; just the way she spoke calmly, and tilted her head with a strange dignity, she inspired respect. I had noticed that my friends would only make jokes when I was alone; when Eveline was with me, they were all gentlemen, different persons altogether.

This morning I woke up very early, almost at night still, and decided to end things for good. Eveline was still asleep. I showered and dressed very quietly, so as not to wake her up and postpone things again, wrote a couple of dry lines on a piece of paper and left it on her bedside table, unlocked the door quietly, and left without her noticing me. It occurred to me that this was the best solution, because this way we would avoid emotions and petty sentimentality and goodbyes, which I cannot stand. It is what it is.

I planned, of course, to return home late at night, or even better, not to return at all, to go sleep at a hotel, for one, two nights… And if she had any ideas to wait for me to say goodbye and what not — what would she do? Eventually she would get tired and leave.

But later, another idea occurred to me, and made me increasingly anxious. I was wrong here, I was so wrong, and perhaps this is what’s bothering me more than anything. It occurred to me that it was possible she would appear, with her suitcase perhaps, teary and red-eyed, at my office, and make a scene, make me look ridiculous. In the end, I was worried about who was about to walk in every time the door opened. I rebelled against myself, asked myself what is this nonsense and cowardice — go home my friend, and if she is in a mood for sentimentality and tears, take her by the hand and tell her go my girl, and leave me alone —it is what it is. The whole affair was unbearable.

It must have been around eleven. I left immediately and came here directly, and on the way I was pleased with myself and my decisiveness. I was regaining my stability.

At the staircase I ran into the maid, and she greeted me smiling as always — “how come you’re back so early?” she asked me pleasantly. So, nothing had happened. I opened the door calmly and entered the hall, self-composed.

Silence.

Nothing.

Our room was prettily decorated as always, my study was empty, and there was no-one in the bathroom. This threw me off somewhat, because I had been expecting other things, and was not prepared. What she left? This easily?

Yes, of course; she had left. On the table, by the armchair where she liked to sit, was a large beige folder, a letter, with my name on it. And in a glass of water, next to it, were a few flowers — violets.

Nothing else. When I looked closer, the space in the closet where she used to hand her dresses was empty, her brush was missing from the bathroom, her other things…

This easily, then? — and I was prepared for so much trouble!…

I took the letter in my hands to open it, and beneath it, folded the same way, was the money I had left for her that morning.

This stang.

I shoved everything in my pocket and left immediately. I do not know how, this house felt terribly deserted all of a sudden — terribly deserted, and a strange air was in the room and it chocked me.

“What time did madam leave?” I asked downstairs at reception. “Did she say anything?”

“Madam left?” No-one had noticed. No, she didn’t say anything. She had only asked for violets this morning.

So that’s how it was. I was truly ridiculous, with all my ridiculous fears.

Outside on the street, perhaps quite a while later — because I found myself far from home — I took the letter out of my pocket and opened it. Since then I cannot find peace. She doesn’t write much, ten simple lines is all, she doesn’t swear at me, doesn’t fault me at all. Quite the opposite, she says that I’m right and that it was not of course possible for things to go any other way, and that she begs me to believe, if I want to, that she will only remember this time with love, and that she did not have to add that it was with great sadness she left this room.

I missed my appointment with my acquaintance from America, and did not know how to pass the time tonight. Besides, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I have been taken over by this weakness in my character, and if I looked deep inside to see what I really wanted, the only thing I wanted was to run out, to find Eveline, wherever she was, to discuss everything, to explain myself. Of course, this was impossible, and it wouldn’t lead anywhere. Just tears and petty sentimentality.

But it is impossible to vanquish this weakness inside me. The only solution I came up with is this: to lock myself inside the room, write everything down in a letter, everything in detail, although I’m determined not to send it, because it is what it is. I took plenty of wine with me, but it’s not really helping.

More than anything — damn it! — I’m annoyed with these few flowers she left in the glass of water. Why did she have to go and do that? I don’t know, perhaps it’s the wine, but every time I raise my eyes and see them, they are blue, deep blue, and it’s as though they are looking at the room with a scared confusion. I want to find a way to write this to her, in a way she can feel it, though it seems too soppy and I might erase it later.

And I can’t help myself, I want to write this too: I did not run outside to find her, of course, wherever she may be — I did not run; but, I’d give I don’t even know what, I’d give everything, everything, if only she would open the door, if I could see her step in for a moment:

“Haven’t you gone to bed yet, my friend?” to ask me with her calm voice, tilting her head slightly with strange dignity. “It’s too late, it’s almost morning my darling, and you will be in a bad mood at the office tomorrow”.

And perhaps her eyes would be red.

It’s not my fault, Eveline, it’s not my fault at all. But life must be very badly made, since it has you give away your soul on the streets of Paris for a piece of bread — you — and it did not make you the guardian angel and the solace of a happy home, down there, in a green garden.

Discussion

I think there are two ways society’s norms can make us unhappy. The first is straightforward: other people’s expectations often require us to conform to certain ways of being, even if they are not our cup of tea. For example, we’re expected to adopt a particular dresscode to go to work, or to write in standard English (as opposed to, say, jive) when taking exams. The second is more insidious: other people, popular narratives, and our culture in general often make us think we want to act in a particular way, even if we do not actually enjoy it. The former form of coercion is annoying, but not damaging; the latter can cause deep unhappiness, because it leads people to chasing dreams that are not really theirs.

I like this story because it is a good illustration of this second form of societal coercion. The narrator wants to be a ‘man of the world’, not a ‘yokel’. He associates the former term with sophistication, the latter with deplorable sentimentalism. Though he spends his time thinking about his failure to be the kind of man he aspires to be, he does not pause to think why he holds this aspiration; he does not question why he equates sophistication with callousness; he does not examine whether he ought to persist in his effort to be cosmopolitan, even though he sees this way of being is alien to him, and brings him only sorrow. Granted, none of this is groundbreaking— the whole ‘protagonist finds true happiness when they decide to be themselves’ trope has been done too many times. But unlike your typical Hollywood treatment, this story does not feature a likeable character, nor does it have a happy ending. This makes it more real, and sadder (incidentally, this point is often overlooked: attempting to be someone you’re not does not only make you unhappy, it makes you less pleasant / interesting to others too (Lydia Davis makes a similar point when she says that if you want to be original, don’t labor to be original; instead, work on yourself, and then say what you think)).

I also like Eveline. I do not understand why she’s attracted to the narrator, nor why she is so kind and subservient to him (perhaps she sees the good in him — his pretensions and pettiness make him a brute, but I know people whose insecurities bring out the worst in them, who are nevertheless basically decent). But what makes her a great character is that she is the counterpoint to the narrator: he thinks that to be sophisticated is to be cruel and unsentimental; she proves that the hallmarks of class are kindness and dignity (another brilliant display of the same is in the dinner scene in Pretty Woman (and the dinner scene in Stagecoach)). The contrast between the two characters, highlighted by Eveline’s small gestures — ordering the violets, and rejecting the money —is ultimately recognised by the narrator; and though he cannot bring himself to break out of his stilted and petty way of thinking, it is this recognition that makes him miserable.