Happy are the Happy
by Yasmina Reza
(available now; reprinted by permission of Other Press)
The following is the third chapter (Odile Toscano) of Happy are the Happy.
Happy are the loved ones and the lovers and those who can do without love. Happy are the happy. —Jorge Luis Borges
The internationally acclaimed playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza stages a band of eighteen characters at war with their lives, with only humor to sustain them. Schnitzler’s La Ronde gives these twenty short chapters their shape while Borges’s poem gives them their content. As we move from story to story, thrilled to reconnect with an old acquaintance from an earlier scene, we can’t help but admit that we are very much at home in this human comedy that understands all too well the passing thoughts, desires, actions, fears, and mistakes that we have and make day after day, but that we would be incapable of rendering with such acuity and compassion.
Everything gets on his nerves. Opinions, things, people. Everything. We can’t go out anymore without the evening ending badly. I find myself persuading him to go out, yet on the whole I almost always regret it. We exchange idiotic jokes with our hosts, we laugh on the landing, and once we’re in the elevator, the cold front moves in. Someday someone should make a study of the silence that falls inside a car when you’re returning home after having flaunted your well-being, partly to edify the company, partly to deceive yourself. It’s a silence that tolerates no sound, not even the radio, for who in that mute war of opposition would dare to turn it on? This evening’s over, we’re home now, and while I undress, Robert, as usual, is dawdling in the children’s room. I know what he’s doing. He’s checking their breathing. He bends over them and takes the time to verify unequivocally that they aren’t dead. Afterward, we’re in the bathroom, both of us. No communication. He brushes his teeth, I remove my makeup. He goes to the toilet room. A little later, I find him sitting on the bed in our bedroom; he checks the e-mails on his BlackBerry and sets his alarm. Then he slips under the covers and immediately switches off the light on his side of the bed. For my part, I go and sit on the other side, I set my alarm, I rub cream into my hands, I swallow a Stilnox, I place my earplugs and my water glass within reach on the night table. I arrange my pillows, put on my glasses, and settle down comfortably to read. I’ve hardly begun when Robert, in a tone that’s supposed to be neutral, says, please turn out the light. These are the first words he’s spoken since we were on Rémi Grobe’s landing. I don’t answer. After a few seconds pass, he raises himself and leans across me, half lying on me, in an effort to reach my bedside lamp. He manages to switch it off. In the darkness, I hit him on the arm and the back – actually I hit him several times – and then I turn the light on again. Robert says, I haven’t slept for three nights, do you want me dead? Without raising my eyes from my book, I say, take a Stilnox. —I don’t take fucking sleeping pills. —Then don’t complain. —Odile, I’m tired ...turn off the light. Turn it off, dammit. He curls up under the covers again. I try to read. I wonder whether the word tired in Robert’s mouth hasn’t contributed more than anything else to our drifting apart. I refuse to give the word any existential significance. If a literary hero withdraws to the region of shadows, you accept it, but the same doesn’t go for a husband with whom you share a domestic life. Robert switches on his lamp again, extricates himself from the bedclothes with uncalled-for abruptness, and sits on the edge of the bed. Without turning around, he says, I’m going to a hotel. I remain silent. He doesn’t move. For the seventh time, I read, “By the light filtering through the dilapidated shutters, Gaylor could see the dog lying under the toilet chair, the chipped enamel washbasin. On the opposite wall, a man looked at him sadly. Gaylor approached the mirror ...” Now who exactly is Gaylor? Robert’s leaning forward, his back to me. He maintains that position while he says, what do I do wrong, do I talk too much? Am I too aggressive? Do I drink too much? Do I have a double chin? Come on, let’s have the litany. What was it this time? Well, you certainly talk too much, I say. —It was so damned boring. And disgusting. —It wasn’t great, that’s true. —Disgusting. What the hell does he do, this Rémi Grobe? —He’s a consultant. —Consultant! he exclaims. Who’s the genius who invented that word? I don’t see why we inflict these ridiculous dinners on ourselves. —You’re not obliged to go to them. —Yes I am. —No you’re not. —I most certainly am. And that dumb bitch in red, the one who didn’t even know that Japan doesn’t have the atomic bomb! —What does it matter? Who needs to know that? —When you don’t know anything about Japan’s military defenses, and who does, then you shouldn’t join in a conversation about territorial claims in the China Sea. I’m cold, I want to pull up the comforter, but it’s stuck under Robert, who inadvertently sat on it. I tug at the comforter. He lets me try to pull it out from under him without lifting himself an inch. I haul on it, groaning slightly. It’s a mute and completely idiotic struggle. In the end, Robert gets up and leaves the room. I turn to the preceding page to figure out who Gaylor is. Robert reappears fairly quickly. He’s got his pants back on. He looks for his socks, finds them, puts them on. He leaves the room again. I hear him in the hall, opening a closet and rummaging around. Then he goes back into the bathroom, or so it seems to me. On the preceding page, Gaylor’s in the back of a garage, arguing with a man named Pal. Who’s this Pal? I get out of the bed, step into my slippers, and join Robert in the bathroom. He’s wearing an unbuttoned shirt and sitting on the side of the bathtub. I ask him, where are you going? He makes a desperate gesture that means I don’t know, it makes no difference. I say, do you want me to fix up a bed for you in the living room? —Don’t worry about me, Odile, go to bed. —Robert, I have four hearings this week. —Please leave me alone. I say, come back to bed, I’ll turn off the lamp. I see myself in the mirror. Robert’s got the bad lights on. I never use the ceiling lights in the bathroom, or if I do, I turn them on together with the spotlights over the washbasin. I say, I look ugly, she cut my hair too short. Much too short, Robert says. That’s Robert’s style of humor: half teasing, half disturbing. It’s supposed to make me laugh, even in the worst moments. And it’s also supposed to disturb me. I say, are you serious? Robert says, how can that jackass be a consultant? In what? —Who are you talking about? —Rémi Grobe. —In art, in real estate, I don’t know exactly what. —A dabbler with his fingers in everything. A bandit, most likely. He’s not married? —Divorced. —Do you think he’s good-looking? We hear a sliding sound in the hall, followed by a little voice: Maman? What’s wrong with him? Robert asks me, as if I knew, and in the instantly anxious tone that sets my teeth on edge. We’re here, Antoine, I say, Papa and I are in the bathroom. Antoine appears, dressed in his pajamas and practically weeping. —I lost Doudine. Again! I say, are you going to lose Doudine every night? You shouldn’t be worrying about Doudine at two in the morning, Antoine, you should be sleeping! Antoine’s face crumples in slow motion. When his face crumples like that, there’s no way of stopping his tears. Robert asks, why are you bawling him out, the poor kid? That question requires me to call upon my entire capacity for self-control. I say, I’m not bawling him out, but I don’t understand why he doesn’t put Doudine on a leash. She can just be tied up during the night! I’m not bawling you out, sweetie, but this is not the time to worry about Doudine. Come on, let’s go back to bed. We head for the boys’ bedroom. Antoine’s sniffling, Doudiiine, as Robert and I march down the hall in single file. We enter the bedroom. Simon’s asleep. I ask Antoine to calm down so he won’t wake up his brother. Robert whispers, we’re going to find her, little hamster. Are you going to tie her up? Antoine whines, not making the least effort to lower his voice. I’m not going to tie her up, little hamster, Robert says. I switch on the bedside lamp and say, but why not? We can tie her up at night in a way that will be very pleasant for her. She won’t feel a thing, and you’ll have a little piece of string, like a little leash, and you can pull on it when... Antoine starts to wail like a siren. Few children can achieve such an exasperating command of plaintive modulation. Shh, shhh, I say. What’s going on? Simon asks. —There! Now you’ve waked up your brother, bravo! —What are you all doing? Doudine’s lost, Robert says. Through half-closed eyes, Simon looks at us like we’re crazy. He’s right. I crouch down to peer under the bed. Since I can’t see much, I start running my hand all over the bottom of the bed. Robert’s rummaging in the comforter. With my head under the bed, I mutter, I can’t understand why you’re not asleep in the middle of the night! That’s not normal. When you’re nine years old, you sleep. All of a sudden, I feel her, jammed between the slats and the mattress. I’ve got her, I’ve got her, I call out. Here she is! Quite a pain in the ass, this Doudine... Antoine presses the stuffed animal against his mouth. —All right, beddy-bye! Antoine gets into his bed. I kiss him. Simon wraps himself up in his covers and rolls over, turning away like someone who’s just witnessed a distressing scene. I switch off the lamp. I try to push Robert out of the room. But Robert stays. He wants to compensate for Mother’s harshness. He wants to reestablish harmony in the enchanted room of childhood. I watch him bend over Simon and kiss him on the back of the neck. Then, in darkness I’ve increased as much as possible by leaving the door just barely ajar, he sits down on Antoine’s bed, tucks him in, nestles the comforter around him, and wedges Doudine so she can’t escape. I hear him murmuring tender words and wonder whether he’s starting one of the stories about Master January’s forest. In former times, men would leave to hunt lions or conquer territories. I wait on the threshold, jerking the door back and forth from time to time to make my irritation known, even though the marmoreal position I’ve adopted should be sufficiently eloquent. Robert finally stands up. We traverse the hall again, in silence. Robert goes into the bathroom, I go into the bedroom and get back in bed. I turn over. I put on my glasses. “Pal was sitting at his desk. His plump hands rested on the dirty blotter. He was informing Gaylor that Raoul Toni had come into the garage that very morning...” Who’s Raoul Toni? My eyes are closing. I wonder what Robert can be doing in the bathroom. I hear a footstep. He appears. He’s removed his pants. How often can this particular threat be made in the course of a married life, this madness of dressing and undressing? I say, do you think it’s normal for a nine-year-old to still have a cuddly toy? Of course, Robert says. I still had one when I was eighteen. I feel like laughing but I don’t show it. Robert takes off his socks and his shirt. He turns off his bedside lamp and slips under the covers. I think I know who Gaylor is. Gaylor’s the guy who’s been hired to find Joss Kroll’s daughter, and I have a hunch Raoul Toni has appeared already too, at the raffle in the beginning... My eyes close. This thriller is not thrilling. I remove my glasses and switch off the light. I turn so that I’m facing the night table. I notice I haven’t pulled the curtain far enough over, it’s going to let the light in too early. Too bad. I say, why does Antoine wake up in the middle of the night? Robert replies, because he can’t feel Doudine. We both stay where we are for a while, each on one side of the bed, staring at the opposite wall. Then I turn over, once again, and press myself against him. Robert puts his hand on the small of my back and says, I ought to tie you up too.