I have never seen the sea.
The black-and-white tiled floor sways like water a few inches from my eyes.
It hurts so much I could die. I am not dead.
When they attacked me—I’m not crazy, someone or something attacked me—I thought, I’ve never seen the sea. For hours I had been afraid: afraid of being arrested, afraid of everything. I had made up a whole lot of stupid excuses and it was the stupidest one that crossed my mind: Don’t hurt me, I’m not really bad, I wanted to see the sea.
I also know that I screamed, screamed with all my might, but that my screams remained trapped in my throat.
Someone lifted me off the ground, someone smothered me.
Screaming, screaming, screaming, I thought again, It’s not real, it’s a nightmare, I’m going to wake up in my room, it will be morning.
And then this.
Louder than all my screams, I heard it: the cracking of the bones of my own hand, my hand being crushed.
Pain is not black, it is not red. It is a well of blinding light that exists only in your mind. But you fall into it all the same. Cool, the tiles against my forehead. I must have fainted again.
Don’t move. Above all, don’t move.
I am not lying flat on the floor. I am kneeling with the furnace of my left arm against my stomach, bent double with the pain which I would like to contain and which invades my shoulders, the nape of my neck, my back.
Right near my eye, through the curtain of my fallen hair, an ant moves across a white tile. Farther off, a gray, vertical shape, which must be the pipe of the washbowl.
I don’t remember taking off my glasses. They must have fallen off when I was pulled backward—I am not crazy, someone or something pulled me backward and stifled my screams. I must find my glasses.
How long have I been like this, on my knees in this tiny room, plunged in semidarkness? Several hours or a few seconds? I have never fainted in my life. It is less than a hole, it is only a scratch in my memory.
If I had been here for very long someone outside would have become worried. I was standing in front of the washbowl, washing my hands. My right hand, when I hold it against my cheek, is still damp.
I must find my glasses, I must get up.
When I raise my head quickly, too quickly—the tiles spin, I am afraid I will faint again, but everything subsides, the buzzing in my ears and even the pain. It all flows back into my left hand, which I do not look at but which feels like lead, swollen out of all proportion.
Hang on to the washbowl with my right hand, get up.I know where I am: the bathroom of a service station on the highway to Avallon. I know who I am: an idiot who is running away from the police…
On my feet, my blurred image moving when I do in the mirror opposite, I feel as if time is starting to flow again.
I know where I am: the bathroom of a service station on the highway to Avallon. I know who I am: an idiot who is running away from the police, a face toward which I lean my face almost close enough to touch, a hand which hurts and which I bring up to eye level so I can see it, a tear which runs down my cheek and falls on to this hand, the sound of someone breathing in a world strangely silent: myself.
Near the mirror in which I see myself is a ledge where I left my handbag when I came in. It is still there.
I open it with my right hand and my teeth. I look for my second pair of glasses, the ones I wear for typing.
Clear now, my face in the mirror is smudged with dust, tear- stained, tense with fear.
I no longer dare look at my left hand. I hold it against my body, pressed against my badly soiled white suit.
The door of the room is closed. But I left it open behind me when I came in.
I am not crazy. I stopped the car. I asked them to fill the tank. I wanted to run a comb through my hair and wash my hands. They pointed to a building with white walls in back of the station. Inside it was too dark for me, I did not shut the door. I don’t know now whether it happened right away, whether I had time to fix my hair. All I remember is that I turned on the tap, that the water was cool—oh, yes, I did do my hair, I’m sure of it!—and suddenly there was a kind of movement, a presence, as of something alive and brutal behind me. I was lifted off the floor, I screamed with all my might without making a sound, I did not have time to understand what was happening to me, the pain that pierced my hand shot through my whole body, I was on my knees, I was alone, I am here.
Open my bag again.
My money is there, in the envelope with the office letterhead.
They didn’t take anything.
It’s absurd, it’s impossible.
I count the bills, lose track, start again. A cold shadow passes over my heart; they didn’t want to take my money or anything else, all they wanted—I am crazy, I will go crazy—was to hurt my hand.
I look at my left hand, my huge purple fingers, and suddenly I can’t stand it anymore, I collapse against the washbowl, fall to my knees again and howl. I will howl like an animal until the end of time, I will howl, weep, and stamp my feet until someone comes, until I see daylight again.
Outside I hear hurried footsteps, voices, gravel crunching. I howl.
The door opens very suddenly on to a dazzling world.
The July sun has not moved over the hills. The men who come in and lean over me, all talking at once, are the ones I passed when I got out of the car. I recognize the owner of the garage and two customers who must be local people who had also stopped for gas.
While they are helping me to my feet, through my sobs my mind fastens on a silly detail: the faucet of the washbowl is still on. A moment ago I didn’t even hear it. I want to shut off that faucet, I must shut it off.
Those who watch me do not understand. Nor do they understand that I don’t know how long I have been here. Nor that I have two pairs of glasses: as they hand me the ones that have fallen, they make me repeat ten times that they are mine, really mine. They tell me, “Calm yourself, come now, calm yourself.” They think I am crazy.
Outside, everything is so clear, so peaceful, so terribly real that my tears suddenly stop. It is an ordinary gas station: gas pumps, gravel, white walls, a gaudy poster pasted to a window, a hedge of spindle and oleander. Six o’clock on a summer evening. How could I have screamed and rolled on the floor?
The car is where I left it. Seeing it reawakens my old anxiety, the anxiety that was latent in me when it happened. They’re going to question me, ask me where I am from, what I have done, I will answer all wrong, they will guess my secret.
In the doorway of the office toward which they lead me a woman in a blue apron and a little girl of six or seven are watching me with curious, serene faces, as if at the theater.
Yesterday afternoon, too, at the same time, a little girl with long hair and a doll in her arms watched me approach. And yesterday afternoon, too, I was ashamed. I can’t remember why.
Yes, I can. Quite clearly. I can’t stand children’s eyes. Behind me there is always the little girl I was, watching me.
From The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, by Sebastien Japrisot. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dover. Copyright © 1966 by Sébastien Japrisot, translated by Helen Weaver and reissued by Penguin in 1997.
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