THE STORY OF ADÈLE
My name leads a brilliant life without me.
A British diva belts songs about chasing pavement while setting fire to the rain—perhaps in an arena named after Barclay’s multinational bank.
When someone learns my name they often excitedly point out how I share it with the singer Adele. Sometimes the new acquaintance—a friend of a friend, a Lyft driver, a barista, someone hitting on me at a bar—attempts a comedic bit where they pretend I am, in fact, Adele the famous singer while they mimic being star-struck. I play along for a few beats, but then I like to proclaim dramatically, One day she will learn to live under my shadow to give the joke some ominous flair.
I’m pleased by this homonymic connection. My exes are doomed to be haunted by me because of Adele’s global superstar reach. Her lugubrious music will always be playing wherever they go—in diners, gas stations, at parties, in taxis—and they will have to think of me. I once went to my ex’s house to retrieve boxes of library books, a popcorn maker, sweaters, and underwear, and the child of their new partner was shrieking Adele’s latest hit and smashing piano keys while we sadly hugged and parted.
I used to fear that I was easily forgettable and am now starting to suspect that may not entirely be the case.
I can’t sing in the big, devastating way that Adele can, but I have a sweet voice and I like to cover “Someone Like You” on the piano in the key of G.
My name also belongs to both Victor Hugo’s wife and their youngest daughter. Adèle Hugo, the daughter, was born in Paris and grew up on the island of Jersey because of Victor Hugo’s political exile. She played the piano well and was known for her beautiful long dark hair. This daughter spent her life scouring the earth—Nova Scotia to Barbados—for Pinson, a British military officer. She felt a scope of feeling too grand for the earth upon which she scoured. There are movies and books about her, called The Story of Adèle H., of which I’ve only seen the covers.
Adèle Hugo was most likely schizophrenic—it ran in the Hugo family. Specifically she suffered from erotomania, delusional romantic infatuation. Initially Pinson proposed to Adèle and she rejected him, but then she changed her mind and then he changed his and thus the scouring commenced. While she scoured, she wrote, naming her diary Journal D’Exil. She kept writing until her health deteriorated in Barbados. She died in 1915, the only child of the family to outlive Victor Hugo. And that’s part of The Story of Adèle H.
When I fling myself through cities while on book tour or on a research trip I’m not scouring—I’m working. Professional and social networks tether purpose and government-funded research projects render scouring valid.
I feel most alive boarding a bus or train or navigating an unfamiliar subway system. The exhilaration I experienced as a teen catching the GO bus at its stop outside the Georgetown Marketplace Mall 15 minutes away from my parents’ house has never left my body, no matter the smells and schedule delays.
These days when I arrive somewhere I comb that place for the version of myself it conjures. I meet with friends, share meals, walk until the arches of my feet throb, write in cafés—not all that different from what I do when I actually live somewhere. Movement isn’t progress, but travel can trick you into feeling like you’re accomplishing something, especially if you’re tapping into a long-suppressed flight instinct.
My name is creepy and precocious. A French foil to Jane Eyre under Rochester’s burning roof. Little Adèle shimmies between Lolita and Shirley Temple, but emerges tamed thanks to Jane—proof of what a good British education can do. Adèle is always the adjacent French other in English literature. Unassuming but a little feral. Sometimes evil albeit capable of overcoming her sordid roots once planted in English soil.
My lessons in ballet and piano made me feel like a Victorian. And something about a depressed mother and a belligerent father decaying in a dilapidated house always struck me as a little gothic and Dickensian or Hugo-esque. Does an environment authorize the genres of your life? It’s hard to say how, but I suspect my education and environment primed me to feel certain ways—that is to meet certain generic expectations. When I was younger I worried all I knew how to do was get good grades, play piano, and disassociate, therefore readying me for either an attic or the erosion of my health upon a windy moor.
Easter and Passover overlap this year, an auspicious move on the part of the lunar calendar. The botanical gardens’ ferns, moss and flowers promise respite on a sunny April weekend for those of us avoiding family and those of us without. Rebecca and Megan take turns posing with me beside a pond for photos. We don smiles of relief.
When I think of you growing up and where you’re from I imagine you as an orphan sweeping the streets of Paris and somehow making it into the opera. Megan offers this fanciful counter-narrative when I tell her I grew up in rural Ontario just as we exit the botanical gardens. Her portrayal of my origins confirms this French Victorian genre I embody as well as emit. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of my life has been tricking others into thinking I’m not only from a different place than where I’m actually from but that I’m of an entirely different era.
While driving through farmland in the outskirts of Surrey, I remark the landscape reminds me of home. I’m surprised you’d call Georgetown home my partner responds.
I want to say I don’t know what else to call the phenomenon of having stared at rolling fields for 13 years.
Mr. Kirby, the art teacher, is covering our Grade Six French Immersion History class. He does not speak French so the lesson proceeds in English. Mr. Kirby moves with erratic gestures and speaks with a strained yelp that suggest he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Middle school lore tells us he already had a public meltdown, which is what has left his voice and arms eternally raised in an exasperated question. He’s absolutely neurotic with curly black hair—just like my mother. I like his absurdity. The calm mean teachers scare me more than someone radiating anxiety.
He shakily writes “1066” on the board and asks the class about the importance of this date with regard to the English language.
Owen and I raise our hands as we’re the precocious ones who have preemptively learned about the Battle of Hastings and how William the Conqueror invaded England with his Norman-French army. I know from my parents’ casual history lessons that William’s victory led to the infusion of French into the English language.
As the daughter of a Francophone and an Anglophone, I am acquainted with the history of William the Conqueror since my parents treat medieval history as some sort of allegory for our bilingual family and its tensions. Sometimes the Norman Invasion is a point of pride and other times derision depending on my father’s moods. I learn early on that history contains different valences contingent on the teller’s temper.
My mother likes to tell me about the daughters of Guillaume le Conquérant—how one was named Adela and another Adeliza. The latter seems especially pertinent because Adeliza fuses my name with my sister Elissa’s. My mother views this naming precedent as portentous, implying that my sister and I derive from this nobility by virtue of our names. As far as anyone can tell Adeliza died a virgin nun because her betrothed perished in battle. Details of her life, including the dates of her birth and death, are unknown.
My name is lugubrious, coquettish, French, Norman, Victorian, medieval.
When I teach university composition courses, I ask my students to share with the class the story of their name—either a given or a chosen name, whichever resonates. They can share the name’s meaning, how or why they came to inhabit this name, or any kind of anecdote related to the name in which they walk around the world. I run this icebreaker as a means to insert the names of 90 students into the rolodex of my brain. If the names come with narratives, surely they will stick. Usually I remember the name’s story—a Ukrainian grandmother, a parent’s favourite actor, a campy nickname that endured—but not the name in question.
I usually offer my students an anecdote about how I share a name with a famous diva and how I’m grateful her prominence finally encouraged proper pronunciation and spelling of my name. Growing up, teachers always tripped over my name on the attendance sheet: Ad-Eel, Ad-a-ley or Adle.
I don’t share that I was born during the manic July heat of the Calgary Stampede, an all-consuming corporate rodeo, to an isolated French Moroccan immigrant in a deeply abusive relationship. Her grandfather, who had raised her for the first five years of her life, had just died in Morocco and my birth initiated a plunge into postpartum depression that bloomed into a sustained depression. In this heat and sadness, she bestowed upon me archetypal French names: Adèle, replete with a pesky accent grave, and Véronique. I imagine her disempowered and alienated, exerting what little power she could by naming the pink warm creature beating on her chest after her own severed lineage. She told me she could hear fireworks from her room every night she was in the hospital and that she believed the fireworks were celebrating my arrival on this earth.
Your name never fails to strike with its syllabic arrangement and its subtle consonantal stitch – a poet on FB messenger
I know my name isn’t the story I want to tell, but it’s all I can give you for now. I’d love to offer you a life story, unabridged, coherent, rendered insightfully, but all I can muster is a few scraps that dance around my first name, its historical, literary and popular lineages, its foibles.
In this non-telling, I’m hoping something about my spirit will fall through the cracks, perhaps even bounce off of a veneer or two, and reach you. If I describe to you how my name circulates through the world and how I try to attach myself to it maybe I will succeed in expressing not the substance of my experiences but their textures and moods. I am writing in this coy way in order to feel for the borders of myself, to test what I can say before this writing about myself makes me want to disappear.
I’m writing about my name because I want to ask how do we choose what we’ve been given? How do we carry it?
I can tell you the story of how my name travels the world with and without me. My name accomplishes so much. She wins awards for poetry, teaches workshops, hosts a reading series, edits a special issue of a magazine, goes on book tours through North America. Always she comes back to me after these outings and lays her latest conquest at my feet. I look at the scene: a bedraggled tabby who caught a half-dead mouse. Her eyes shine. Look at what I got you! Look at what I got us! I scoop up the carcass with a spade and fling it into the bushes. I scratch her chin. Oh, it was such a good gift, kitten, but this half-dead mouse won’t feed us. Neither will that bird’s wing, nor that moth you caught last week.
I check in at Westcoast Bound, Metro Vancouver Kink’s annual BDSM conference. The first day of the conference coincides with PMS and my father’s birthday because January is nothing if unrelenting. The volunteer at the registration desk identifies me by way of my partner’s proper name and my FetLife nickname before handing me a badge that reads Adèle. I want to chuck my full name at them—I may be my Daddy’s baby girl but fuck, I’m still me. The volunteer looks at my chest in the harness my partner made me for my thirtieth birthday when they were first starting to do leather work and says You can tell what they like about you.
That night my partner and I enter the hotel ballroom that’s awkwardly outfitted as a dungeon. Various play stations, spanking benches, cages, hard points for ropes, a St. Andrews Cross, splay over the red paisley carpet. Amidst the straight couples whipping each other stoically under purple lights and slightly out of sync from the DJ’s drum-and-bass, we make our way to some floor mats. My partner beats me with their gloved fists and boots past what I can calmly take until I cry and yell. Then they introduce an awful looped wire that stings and leaves red marks with very little effort. I hate this instrument and had previously declared that it doesn’t exist before hiding it in my bedside table’s drawer. I try to wrestle The Thing That Doesn’t Exist out of their grip, but they get a few vicious strikes on my thighs. I’m furious so I push back. I push their chest and arms away and when their fists come back to hit me with the handle of The Thing That Doesn’t Exist I snap and flail. I twist and roll along the mats, shaking my limbs in all directions to shut down access to me. I’m livid hot magma pouring in all directions, unencumbered for a few vital seconds.
I start to roll off the mats.
Adèle they say gently.
My name attaches to my body and I stop flailing. No longer a badge on a lanyard, it’s a note that’s easy to hum. I can feel it in my throat. We kiss and fuck and then head home in an EVO, stopping at the McDonald’s drivethru. I sleep soundly and get my period the next morning.
Later they claim I called you back to me.
I correct, Eh, I came back to myself.
ADÈLE BARCLAY’s writing has appeared in Vallum, The Heavy Feather Review, glitterMOB, The Pinch, The Puritan, PRISM, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award for Poetry and the 2016 Walrus Readers’ Choice Award for Poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, (Nightwood, 2016) won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her second collection of poetry, Renaissance Normcore, was recently published by Nightwood Editions. She was Arc Magazine’s 2018-19 Poet in Residence and Canadian Women in Literary Arts 2016 Critic in Residence. She is an editor at Rahila’s Ghost Press and the 2020 Writer in Residence at the University of the Fraser Valley.