Nadja by André Breton

I am reading Nadja by André Breton. My husband has left the house. I am sitting up in bed, on top of the covers, with my shoes on. It’s quiet, and my hands feel dry, like pages. I turn a page and make a fist, press my nails into my palm. The result is four half-moons that look like unstressed syllables, with the perpendicular crease that runs across—what is called, I believe, the “lifeline”—a stressed one. I always read Nadja after I fight with my husband. I have never finished it, and I can’t recall it with any accuracy. Reading while fighting is an altogether different kind of reading, an unreading. It is a way to feel more poetic about fighting. The fight appears on the page over the words and in between them, crowding them out, erasing them, until the story of Nadja becomes the story of you, the story of your husband, and your fight, and finally, at its climax, how desperately wronged you have been, how wrong it all is.

Now, awaiting his key in the lock—the scrape of return, the metal-on-metal hyperbolic as the movies—I think about the common notion of reading as escape. But to where? The world of the book? A world enclosed by front and back cover? It would seem that “real life,” whatever that is, offers infinitely more possibilities for escape, more places to hide, to lie in wait. To lie, and wait. My fights permeate Nadja, and now I have two places to escape from. I want exile from my exile, which has become a cell, and I wish for the dimension of shadowlessness, of the de-obscured—that is, the place of no language.

What is a fight, but brokedown, distorted meanings, injurious not just for what they are, but for how they sound? How difficult to survive in a world of cadence and tone! It’s a wonder we don’t fight more often, perpetually, exclusively. In itself, communication is a lobbing of grenades, and ever-mysterious to me is how and why the pin gets pulled, over what change in weather or moment’s hesitation. We reach the realm of the irrevocable with some incredulity, still partly believing that we can change course, go back to the bowls of steaming noodles, back to what we’d want to have, besides each other, on a desert island. And then by some strange turn we are there, singly, arms waving, each of us jumping up and down on the shoreline as the sound of the last helicopter dies away.

This is what is called Aftermath. The possibility of stillness is here obliterated. No longer reading, no longer myself but a wild and exaggerated version of myself, bionic in my need, I scale the typeface of the book, swinging from letters hand over hand, hopping nimbly over ellipses, hugging the wide ends of apostrophes and commas between my knees. I am in anticipation, a land of vagrants and castaways, a penal colony, a country of customer service, of pound/star confusion, of lines at the deli where you are number 19 and number 19 doesn’t exist. I wish to be triaged. I am trying to reach the front, the counter where I will be told all is well, I am loved and good, where there will be free samples also. The sound of rapturous wound-licking is like an untuned harpischord being played by a trumpet virtuoso—a reveille, a flourish, and next I am at the Restaurant Delaborde, watching for Nadja.

I sit at a window table and order a bottle of wine from my husband. He is now the one who waits, the one who waits more than, which is to say, the waiter, and we are comfortable in our agreement that something will break or spill. I am only waiting for Nadja, and he is waiting for us both. He brings the wine and tells me about a steak. The restaurant is humid, so I ask him if he will increase the velocity of the ceiling fans. He gestures with his arms and knocks over a water glass—Nadja’s, full and sweating. He is apologizing. I apologize by ordering the steak. When he leaves, I direct my attention toward the door, which is opening and closing with people coming and going. A fat man stands at the front with a cigar, greeting people loudly and dusting at his sleeve.

I’m quite sure I won’t recognize Nadja, with her face like changing sky. She arrives at the same time as my steak, which is how I know it is her—me, staking her out; her, meat-colored in a brown traveling suit with a rose blouse, shoulder bag lumpy as with potatoes. My husband-waiter pauses after setting down my plate, turns slightly toward the door to see Nadja, looking so plate-worthy herself. The confluence manages to be staggering and boring at the same time. By the time Nadja reaches my table, my husband-waiter has disappeared into the steam beyond the swinging doors, and I am, again, alone. Since being with Nadja is somehow the same, better-and-worse, as being alone. I wait for her to speak. I take a bite, sip my wine. Her elbow is damp from resting on the wet tablecloth; her water glass remains tipped and empty. I give her mine. She doesn’t seem to notice.

“Everything I see,” I say, “is as if through the wrong end of the telescope.”

“Edith Wharton said that,” Nadja says, without looking up, “already.” She takes from her bag a silver cigarette case and opens it. It is empty. She looks at her reflection on the inside, smooths her hair.

“Everything I see,” I say, “is some version of myself in whatever condition I’m in.”

“Henry Miller said that,” Nadja says, baring her teeth to the cigarette case, “already.” Without looking at me, she reaches across and plucks a tiny roasted potato from my plate. She rubs it across her lips, englistening them, and then puts it in the ashtray.

“Everything I see,” I say, “is terribly triangulated. Each thing touches two things. One that I want, and one that I don’t want; or two that I want, or two that I don’t want, or some other combination of having, losing, wanting. But rarely is anything neutral.”

“You say that,” Nadja says, looking out the window, “all the time.”

“I have never said that before. Maybe something like it, but those exact words, in that exact sequence....” I can’t finish my sentence because I am too embarrassed. Our table feels suddenly large and crowded with people, elbows, allergies, digestion. There is only vertical room, to nod, raise one’s glass. Shaking one’s head has been prohibited, spatially. Beneath my table, a sprig of something lay curled on the parquet floor. Parsley. Parsley/parquet. I think to myself how it would make sense if we knew exactly where to be, based on the first three letters of our names. Nadja would have no choice but to huddle against her nadir, whereas my husband would come to rest in some husk, and I would be helplessly pinioned in a kriegspiel, and all of us would be frantically trying to get to the other, scrambling and bargaining to be somewhere else. Which is exactly what we do all the time anyway. We might as well be phonetic about it.

“You frustrate me,” Nadja says. “You should think less about yourself.” She pulls a radish from her bag and eats it. “You should think about me, instead. Think about him.” She points to my husband-waiter, who is gallantly sweeping crumbs from the next table.

Nadja looks tired, and I feel inhumanly sleepy, deadened like some volcanic ash. I try to speak. “I think about you as a kind of me,” I say, “and him as a kind of me,” but I am yawning, and I yawn out the “of,” and so what I confess to thinking about is him as a kind me. This is what goes on the record, stenographically. Nadja puts money on the table and gets up, and then she is on the other side of the window, mouthing something.

“I can’t understand,” I say. “Just speak normally, so I can hear you.”

Again she mouths something, more slowly and deliberately, showing me much of the whites of her teeth and eyes. Her mouth bends acrobatically, a vowel-gymnast. Then she is gone, and I am left wondering, as I am after every departure, how next to be. A, e, i, o, u.

When my husband arrives, Nadja is face-down in my lap. I am, a little, “laughing up my sleeve.” My husband values macabre hilarity and joins me in the kind of laughter that is like the first word spoken late in the afternoon when you have been silent and alone all day. A gurgle, a fossilized sound. In the rust of our mirth there is genuine nervousness for how it is all supposed to go; we get to this point and begin to make decisions. We will, for a little while, speak only in vowels, noiselessly, miming the outlines of words as a kind of dress rehearsal. As for the fight, it has happened; it has followed, thickly and neatly, like ooze through a cylinder, its right course. To speak of it now would be redundant, melodramatic. There are people who believe in conciliating and there are people who believe in Nadja. There are people who leave and come home. There are people who make promises and people who know there will be a next time, and that it will not be different, and that it will not be without some small, wincing degree of pleasure. There are people who fight to remember and people who fight to remember to forget. We are most of these people, most of the time. I put Nadja on the nightstand and turn to face my husband, who is sitting up on his side of the bed, on top of the covers with his shoes on. There is an indigenous vocabulary in his face, words going across and down and diagonal, hidden amidst letters he got from elsewhere. I read. A husband is not a book.

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