Florence: a portrait
F for Fake
All the memories I have of Florence are so old that I do not know if they are authentic or fake. I wonder to what extent the images have been repainted, reproduced, again and again, so that eventually the fake exceeds the authentic.
I met Florence when we were both three. She was my first friend. The meeting had been arranged by our mothers, who were colleagues. I spent the afternoon at her place. We read books. She had a bedroom that was perhaps three times as large as the one I was sharing with my newborn brother. At the center stood a large wooden house. I think you could stand inside. I don’t think I went inside. We talked very little. We read a book in which you could create monsters. The book was made of thick shiny cardboard. It was cut horizontally into three parts. Each page showed the picture of an animal cut into three and you could create your monster by flipping the different parts of the pages back and forth in different directions. The upper part for the head. The middle part for the belly. The lower part for the legs and feet. The giant wooden house and the book of monsters impressed me deeply.
I saw Florence a second time, and it was the last time. She was a new pupil in my preschool. That day I wanted to impress her the way her wooden house and her book of monsters had impressed me. I showed her my favorite tree, a miserable leafless sycamore, dwarfish and maimed. You could climb on it very easily because it was so small.
Florence was a frail child. She wore a corset that corrected her scoliosis but hindered all movements. Once she was up inside the branches of the tree she looked terrified. I reached out to her, to help her, to show her which branch she should hold on to. I pushed. She fell.
In my memory I see rivulets of bright vermillion blood on a forehead so pale I would paint it blue. I see very beautiful hair, the texture of cotton, the color of chestnut, hair flowing and falling everywhere around her pale blue face. Eyes closed. Very peaceful.
After that, nothing. I jumped from the tree, I ran, I left. When I came back her mother was there but Florence was gone. I never saw her again.
L for Loss
I forgot Florence. For precisely thirty-three years I never thought of her, or I’ve lost all memory of ever thinking of her or mentioning her name. She came back to me during a therapy session a few months after I got bombed. Sometimes I wonder whether they are connected, for when the bomb exploded, three little girls, blown by the blast, fell on top of me. We lay there unconscious, together in a pile, for an indefinite amount of time and I wonder whether the three warm bodies, the musk of their long hair, summoned Florence’s ghost. But I will never know for sure why she came back to me then, what triggered her memory after so long. It was a bit like opening a forgotten dusty shoebox under a bed and finding in it a letter addressed to me that I had completely forgotten about. But all of the sudden I saw her bedroom, her wooden house, her hair. My memory had lost her face, but not her hair that was a luminous chestnut and had the consistency of cotton. I saw the book of monsters I had loved so much. Then I saw the tree. I did not see her fall but the only memory I have of her face is with blood on her forehead. During that therapy session I was so surprised to see there was inside of me a three-year-old, convinced that she had killed her only friend. The three-year-old is chubby and wears forever red corduroy overalls and a marine-striped sweater. She has a bowl haircut. She chiefly eats coquillettes pasta with butter and salt. She climbs trees. Small trees. She lives in a dead-end. Inside her dead-end, only boys play. Older boys. Five or six-year-old boys and they like her and she likes them and they include her in their games that consist of digging holes in the melting tar of the sidewalk in the summer heat for instance. But she does not really think of them as close friends. She does not really think of them. In preschool, no friend. No hostility either. Just no one. Then Florence. Then no one again.
O for Origins
At the origin of too many memories I archived of myself, I find, hidden, the story of a lonely monster who destroys and kills the things and beings she loves most. A “Just So Story” that teaches about the appearance of the most distinct feature of an animal, the creation of an alphabet. The story of the day I mistook my hamster for my brother and killed him. The story of my left hand who wanted to draw, but it was forbidden. The story of why the cat won’t sleep with me. The story of Selen who disappeared. The silent story of A. All those stories could not exist as they do now without the forgotten story of Florence.
When I summon the monster and attempt to speak with her, she comes in the shape of a drawing I made on February the 5th 1979, at age four, entitled: “Puppet with hidden strings who throws fire everywhere for Mama.” She has eight black hairs on her head, like eight sticks of charred wood. Black eyes, black nose, black mouth, black ears. The black mouth is sewn shut with red stitches. A red dress with one giant red arm on the left of the drawing. Two blue rectangular legs. Red stitches criss-crossing her forehead. A red cloud of paint at the back of her head. A blue cloud like the shadow of the red dress, in the negative space behind her. I am scared of the drawing. So I keep it near the window in the room where I write and watch it daily.
R for Resonance, Reverberation
A. appeared to me in the shape of a student. A complete beginner, he wanted to learn French so as to translate Foucault’s “Histoire de la Folie”. I remember thinking he must be mad. Or more precisely that his relationship with a history of madness was an intimate one. I also remember of this first lesson that he wore old black ankle leather boots and one of his shoelaces was bright red, the other bright yellow. I remember thinking I used to be very particular about my shoelaces as well when I was thirteen, and wondered when and why I stopped. I guessed he was twenty-two, then learned later he was twenty-seven. I chose to teach him how to express likes and dislikes. Then because I was poorly prepared and had no prompt to offer him, I asked him to choose a question for me. Anything. His eyes swept the room slowly, stopped on something behind me, outside the window. He smiled as if he had been exposed from within to something luminous: “Vous aimez les arbres?” Did I like trees?
I do not know at what point that first memory of him became pain, when exactly I started remembering him purely as music, as the incarnation of the fourth movement from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. As if from his short thick black hair, his frail skeleton, his long pale arachnid fingers, his black gaze, focused mostly on the invisible, emanated notes of grief, exactly on the same frequency as my tinnitus. The night after I met him, I felt exhausted and slept soundly. For the last time. There was an incubation period of roughly 36 hours. After that, my insomnias started and lasted six months during which I slept on average 3 hours per night. The rest of the nights were spent listening intently to the tinnitus in my right ear, the remnant of the bombing, and elaborating what I started to call my theory of harmonic traumas. I never studied harmonics. But I know what the innards of my piano look like. As a child I used to love to stare at the hammers and observe how, when a hammer hit a string, other strings magically would start to vibrate, but never the ones directly near the string that had been hit. I decided that people were like piano strings. That A. and I had, unbeknownst to both of us, old psychic wounds that started reverberating when we were in each other’s presence. I wanted to tell him. I thought it would help us both. Maybe one day I could sleep again. But he disappeared.
E for Exiled
Because I live one ocean plus one continent away from the country where I was born and grew up, I have a distorted vision of childhood. I see childhood as a distant land and I nurture the illusion that I can go back. I was forced to leave against my will, but I can go back.
In the new land, I speak a new language, different rules apply to me. Nothing fits. In the old world, when I go back, I encounter mostly ghosts.
One night, perhaps two decades ago, I was sleeping at my grandmother’s in Paris and I had insomnia again. So I opened one of her drawers in the living room and I found a bundle of letters written by my dad. In one of them, from around the time I knew Florence, my dad wrote about visiting an old medieval village with me in the Dordogne and about a conversation we had together then about ghosts. He wrote that I told him: “Ghosts don’t exist. But there are ghosts in the streets of ancient towns, because those are streets that no longer exist.” I have no memory of having ever said that to him.
This unknown force that banished me is fused with the force that made Florence disappear, that made A. disappear. I do not live at peace with my ghosts.
N for Nemesis
I understand the word nemesis as a forest of mirrors. This image comes from a dream I had a few weeks before I met A. In the dream, the tall black mirrors are scattered among pine trees and reflect nothing. You must pay to enter the forest. I hover, alone, by the entrance, delimited by turnstile doors. My feet do not touch the ground. Oblivious to the fact that the surfaces of the mirrors are as black as ink and reflect nothing, I convince myself that they deform.
But if I look at the etymology, I find the Greek, nemein, “give what is due” and that nemesis literally means “retribution”. So why has it become intertwined in my memory with a forest of black mirrors?
A movie comes to mind: the final scene of The Lady From Shanghai, by Orson Welles. The scene haunted me through my twenties and it takes place in a deserted labyrinth of mirrors. The man with the gun wants to kill the woman he loves, but is at a loss to know whether he is shooting at her or at her reflection. “But of course killing you is like killing myself, but you know I am tired of both of us.” The archive of my memory sampled and juxtaposed that quote from the movie with an image of my mother in her early forties, at a time when she had taken the habit of brainstorming out loud to me her ideal suicide plans. She would go to the Bossons Glacier, in the Alps, near where she was born, with a bottle of her favorite whisky and a large quantity of valium. She would make sure to be there late afternoon, and enjoy the sunset. The dissolving red of the sun would be reflected everywhere on the ice. But before leaving, she wanted to walk me through the important things not to forget to do regularly to maintain the garden. That upset her, to think that the garden and the woods around the house would be neglected once she was gone.
If I attempt to go through that recurring memory that functions also like a black mirror, I face, again, the destruction of the person most loved, the fear to break, the fear to be broken. The desire to break? The desire to be broken? Is it my fear or the reflection of someone else’s fear? The shattered memory of A. The fragmented memory of Florence. The deformed images of my mother. Writing resembles shooting at mirrors.
C for Catastrophe
I am eight. I live in the countryside in the Dordogne in a small house on the top of a hill. On one side of the house: forests. On the other side, down the hill: cows in a field. Further down the hill, a creek meanders through trees. In March it swells, overflows. It becomes impossible to walk near the water without the mud swallowing my legs up to my knees. March smells of hail, cow shit, apple blossoms. I love the mud. Everything too green, the sky angry. The hail falling on the greenhouse. Hailstones as big as pigeon eggs. My mother and I, we go to the greenhouse; the ice falls, bounces back on the glass roof and then reverberates through my bones. We say we hope the glass won’t break. But we hope it would. It would be magnificent. We both like catastrophes.
So much joy and warmth in her eyes as she turns towards me to say she hopes the glass won’t break. Later in life, each time I fall in love, it will be like being back in that first hailstorm in the greenhouse.
E for Exsanguine
I started losing all of my blood while I was living in Japan. All the strongest symptoms of my iron-deficiency anemia –blurry vision, vertigo, a constant craving for black sesame paste, for beef marrow, very high despairs–I come to associate with exile. With exile and with idiocy, because I became slow at understanding situations and reacting, because I could not read Japanese and so for two years when I was there I could not decipher any of the street signs. In supermarkets I bought conditioner or shower gel thinking it was shampoo. When it came to laundry products, I had no idea what exactly I was buying; the drawings on the box were not helpful. Being freed from the alphabet was empowering in ways that remain mysterious to me today, fifteen years later. Maybe allowing myself to go back to a time when there was no word, so no obstacle, between wherever it was that my body ended and the world began. And losing blood had that same effect on me as losing my native alphabet: not knowing for sure anymore where my body ended, dissolving from within. I desired to be outside of my country, outside of my language, outside of my body.
Around that time period, the French word exsangue became my favorite word. It would come to visit me, like a song, during sleepless nights. The word is a reptile, too. A song and a reptile that comes at night when I turn off the lights.
Exsanguine is also the only way I remember Florence. Silent, eyes closed. Blood on her temples, around her smooth forehead. Her image slowly dissolving, fusing, becoming entirely mine.
Lucie Bonvalet is a teacher, writer and visual artist from Portland, Oregon. Her writing and drawings can be found in Catapult, Hobart, Word Riot and the Women in Clothes anthology.