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A Strasbourg Rendez-vous

By Daniel ARSAND Sofitel Strasbourg Grande Ile

Tobias Véramian had traveled by train. A couple of hours spent reading —the words instilling a lilting happiness, in a foreign tongue that he understands all the same; what adjective denotes every language other than one’s own? — his gaze gliding across landscapes unfolding beyond the window, beyond him — cropped, grassy plains, yellow and graying; it was autumn, with winter already evident in the swell of bare forests. He had awakened early that morning, which was unusual, for it has always pained him to part with his dreams, and now he was a bit tired. Last night he had fallen asleep after midnight. He had been devouring a story told by another, drifting contentedly, paragraph to paragraph. The train stops in Strasbourg. It’s the terminus for him. The moment he steps onto the platform he is on edge. He is no longer young, although he is not yet old, either; he is between two streams, in a sense, at the beginning of a bridge, and for several years he has been aware of the obvious: He is not immortal. On edge, and defensive, too, anxiously hoping that he might reconnect with his past. He once spent three days in this city with his parents, Hagop and Lily, whom he had never called by these names; he was Dad, she was Mom. Images from this brief stay linger. “Linger” is a verb that does not do justice to what is, to what in fact remains. It is too vague, too simplistic, too limp, laced with a scent of defeat and a foamy whiteness. They are in him, they are here, clear and willing, since he agreed to be received by a luxury hotel, the Sofitel, for these Literary Stopovers. He is a writer. He has never stopped learning to write, which is a good sign. Tomorrow night, in the hotel bar, under the hot glow of the lights, he will have to speak about himself, about the man who he is and the author who he might be, about his books, therefore, about his shadow-filled interior nights and an uncompromising high noon resonant with words in his innermost depths.

He is met at the station by a pretty woman whose blue eyes evoke fire, a blue intensified by an old wound, he thinks. The air is light, with shades of gray. They go by foot to the hotel. It had been his idea: a walk so that he might breathe in the city immediately. The pretty woman points out architectural splendors that are fading or have been recently restored or still others that after several centuries simply continue to live their lives of stone. They go, they go and the city is displayed before them, around them, it flutters, it is. It straightens and winds. They arrive at the Place Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune, where the protestant church of the same name rises in pink and green tones, and here, too, is the hotel and its vast hall — the ballroom of a ship, he thinks. He observes, he notes, he will contemplate. He is not familiar with this kind of place. He knows, though, that he can feel at home here. Everything is fine, then. The director greets him. Madame’s amiability is without ostentation. The smiles are true smiles, an air of elegance is instantly evident. It is a pleasure to speak with her for a few minutes. Then he rides the elevator with the blue-eyed woman. She accompanies him to his room, which turns out to be a suite. The bed is vast. Comparing it to an island would not be absurd. It is an island, therefore, and a raft, and a continent. Mahogany furniture emits a russet glow. Everything is fine, he repeats to himself. He is left alone. He wanders from room to room, a visiting little prince, and a remarkably lucky one at that. Lily and Hagop are no longer. He will not write them a letter describing what he sees, what his furtive emotions are expressing. It’s time for lunch with Madame and Blue Eyes. He tells them of his previous visit, speaks of those who engendered him. I was a child then, he says. The meal tastes of violets. The coffee finished, he is left to himself.

He strolls, aimlessly. The cathedral draws him. He recognizes it. As he recognizes, too, the famous Maison Kammerzell; coming upon it without warning is a shock. It had been half a century before this adult today. Lily had thrown her head back, exclaiming, “Ah!” and “Oh!” several times in rapid succession; Hagop, as usual, fell into a meditation that his son could never decide whether it was truly a meditation or whether he was withdrawing from the world around him, plunging into his memories, burying himself in the sands of his mind, forgetting what was before him. Who was this man, his father? Moved, he waits, foolishly, for Lily and Hagop, this mother and father who had been his, to be near him once again, to no longer be but memories, images, visions, fragments of beings without soul or consciousness, like fossils, preserved by passing time. But he waits in vain. He will not share with them his impressions of the city, of Alsace, of what he, their only child, has become. Conversation is not possible with the departed. We can only remember them. We are given little else. Such is the way of the world, of the gods and the dead. They are forever lifeless. But on this November afternoon, Tobias Véramian wants them beside him as walking companions. He wants to study their features, hoping to decipher there an entire life. One hundred expressions in one. What he had been unable to grasp before would now be revealed. He wants them in the flesh, his two beloved ones, even if that flesh is spiked with darkness. He wants them all to himself, idealized by his remorse or persecuted by his resentment. He wants to tell them he loves them.
His wish will be granted.

He is about to accept that he has lost them, that his childhood has been silenced, he is on the verge of turning from his memories when suddenly they appear before him. It’s their voice, weakened of course, but it’s theirs, a distant echo of what it once was, quieter, yes, and more shadowy. He hears the voice that for so long had not reached him. It is two voices that overlap and embrace. They resonate in his heart, in his entire body, they are glowing embers, they murmur, they reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a man and a woman, they say, “We were this and we were that, and what did you know of it, son?” He has the impression that these strangers so near, these parents about whom so much had escaped him, toward whom he had been so indifferent, with whom he had been so unjust, are unveiling themselves now with neither nostalgia nor despair, as the city to which he is giving himself is revealed, confidently, like a stained-glass window no longer obscured by the flight of clouds. He begins walking again — We are with you, they say to him —- and from street to street, from lane to alley, from courtyard to courtyard — Don’t leave me, he begs them — he is certain that they will soon be more than voices, and this heartens him. He notices young men and women passing, he desires some of them, an unstable desire, basic and raw, then suddenly he feels a hand on his shoulder, it is pressing him, like a tickle: Go, drift and see. It was still raining a second ago, but the sun now pierces the celestial carpet, piercing and piercing, and little by little blue spreads above him, over the city and its inhabitants and the shops of the Christmas market. The hand lets go, a voice emerges from the urban tumult in soft octaves: You have grown, my dear. She lets go of him just as he was passing — never mind the young men and women so hastily ogled — a brown-haired young man with green eyes, handsome, a perfect dandy, who he knows is cultivated and mad about the works of Henry James, for this young man had been his lover, and the young man passes him, hesitates, turns around, walks beside him, the same rhythm as before, the same secret harmony, oh! Hugues is back. Here with a strange rustle. How can this be? Hugues died of AIDS. Nearly 20 years ago now. And Lily sways toward him, Tobias Véramian, she pushes through the crowd, she is his mother, she takes his arm — What exactly does he feel? Such a light arm, so very light, an arm of mist.

My imprudent angel, she says. Then: Where is he? Where is your father? Look, my baby, he is joining us, but you are so quiet, Tobias
With his eyes, Hugues asks: These are your parents? And he sighs: We’ve been together for so long and they never told me who they were. Who among us is still curious about anything? Tobias, it’s you, I’ve found you again, Tobias, why was our love so short?
Tobias had left him, Hugues had loved him, they had loved each other, no doubt Tobias had adored more than loved him. Yes, it had been a very brief love, but a love of great intensity.
Hugues leans toward Lily and Hagop: Aren’t you tired? I am. Seeing your son again hurts me. I’m happy and this happiness is exhausting. He is yours, he was mine. What is love? I’m leaving.
Leaving? To go where, Hugues? Hagop says sarcastically.
It’s a manner of speaking, Hugues says. Do you follow me? We’ll find him again. “They” told us: No more than 10 minutes each time. A gift. I’m careful, I’m tired, and I still love him.
Tobias, how pale you are, you are paler than us.
I am…

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