Two weeks after my parents’ accident, I’m back at their apartment in La Napoule, and I discover a boxful of eight- and sixteen-millimeter films. They’re the home movies my parents accumulated throughout their lives.
Separately bundled with masking tape are reels of movies of a little boy. For a minute there’s a disconnect. I think it’s me. I look out the window, remembering. The Mediterranean is blue as a computer screen, flat and calm, punctuated only by a speck of gray tearing a thin line toward the horizon, a ferry chugging its way to the Îles de Lérins. I check the dates on the reels, and I realize the boy was two years old by the time I was born.
I call a couple of aunts in Fréjus to ask if they know anything about these mysterious films. They tell me Sylvain and Annette had never meant for me to find out.
It was the son they lost a few weeks before I was born. His name was Mathieu, just like mine. It was the boy who I replaced.
This is one of the first things I reveal to Janya when I first meet her. The place is Bangkok, the year is 2002.
She’s hanging out in a bar with a bunch of friends. One of them is my editor, Philippe, who’s just arrived from Paris. Phil and I are working on a documentary on the effects of globalization on indigenous communities. He calls me over to join them. Phil is drinking Singha beer, an American is drinking a mojito, and another Thai girl a mai tai. Janya’s drinking something made of seaweed jelly. It looks like green slime. I ask for the same. She has a Sony DCR-TRV900 on the seat beside her. I ask her if she’s a documentary filmmaker herself. She says she’s employed by this nonprofit based in Massachusetts that monitors multinational sweatshops all over the world. Phil says she and I are going to work together, and that she will arrange some interviews for me.
Everyone’s getting drunk except her and me. By the end of the evening I find out that the American is a stringer for CNN and the Thai girl is a dancer at one of the local clubs. He’s married; she’s fucking him. The place has a jukebox blasting ’80s hard rock all night. After a while my throat gets hoarse from having to shout just to be heard across the table. I turn to Janya instead, and we wind up talking to each other alone. She likes saying my last name over and over.
“Aubert, Aubert. Sounds like Flaubert,” she says. “I wonder if you’re as obsessive-compulsive.”
I tell her I haven’t really thought about it, but maybe I am. I ask her how she likes her job. She replies, putting her lips close to my ear, “Imagine that: a Thai girl who’s not being paid to fuck.”
After a couple more rounds, Phil and the stringer and the Thai girl want to hop on to another bar. I’m feeling jet-lagged and want to call it a night. Phil protests. After all, I’ve been here close to a week now. Janya walks to my hotel with me. On the way, she tells me she’s glad I came along. The American and the Thai girl are so into each other they’re annoying, and she thinks Phil is gay.
“Which means . . . ?” I ask her.
“You’re welcome to come over.”
On her bed there’s a copy of No Logo, Globalization and Its Discontents, and The Algebra of Infinite Justice. “A rainbow coalition of the liberal,” she says as she swipes them aside to make room.
I sit on the bed and pull my Nikes off.
“You’re wearing the enemy,” she says.
I lie back and close my eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“Vertigo,” I say. “Too much mai tai.”
“You didn’t have any.”
“No, but the sight of it makes me sick.” Silence. Long silence. I open my eyes. “How long have I been out?”
“Oh, about ten minutes.”
“I’m sorry. My head just went spinning and all of sudden—”
She puts a finger to my lips. “I was watching you the whole time. Watching your face. You looked so serene, like you were having a beautiful dream.”
I pull her down gently toward me. “I like you. You’re cute.”
“That’s what fa-rung-sayt call the prostitutes.”
“No, I didn’t mean—”
“I know.” She starts to unzip my jeans. “Does that happen a lot? The vertigo?”
“Not since I was a kid. I was a very frail kid.”
“You look quite hefty to me now.”
“Cute and hefty. We make an interesting pair.”
We’re tearing each other’s clothes quickly, fumbling like a pair of horny teenagers. I pull out a condom from my jeans pocket. She takes it from my hand and throws it aside.
“Bareback,” she says.
“Seems kind of like Russian roulette, doesn’t it, but talking to you at the bar revealed a lot about you.”
“I wasn’t aware I said anything revealing at all, except that I hated doing the tourist thing—drugs, hookers, rock and roll.”
“That’s precisely what I like about you.”
A few days later, I call to set an appointment so we can start working on our interviews. She doesn’t return my calls. I don’t see her for another week. The next weekend I see her at the same bar with the same people. The first thing she notices is that I’m no longer wearing Nikes.
“Yeah,” I tell her. “A very subtle way of comradeship.”
“I didn’t know you felt so strongly about it,” she says.
We sleep together every night and still hang out with the same bunch of people on weekends, pretending there’s nothing going on. We sit far apart. We hardly even talk to each other. The secrecy of our relationship makes it more exciting, like we’re playing a private game of coded gestures and hidden messages. This secrecy becomes the core of our relationship, a kind of mental Viagra. We keep fucking bareback, me barely able to pull out at the last minute. I ask her if she’s not scared.
“Of what? You protect yourself against those with whom you share nothing but mutual indifference.”
I can’t help an amused smile.
“That’s the closest I’ll ever get to saying I love you,” she says.
“Are you saying you love me?”
She says she wants a language only she and I can understand. Not French, not English, not even Thai, but a series of signs so simple no second-guessing is necessary. Text messaging, she says, is the ideal evolution of language—communication distilled to the level of basic necessity. She invents a private text message, a kind of private joke, to convey this: WSOWOB, we speak only with our bodies. This way the artificial boundaries of human interaction are blurred between us.
This gives me another idea. I suggest that we reveal ourselves completely to each other, that we reveal everything. “Everything, that is, that we wouldn’t normally share with anyone else,” I add. “Then our private barriers break down, and we make ourselves totally vulnerable to the other.”
“Is that what you want? To be vulnerable?”
“No, it’s what I fantasize. Kind of like a mental striptease.”
“Hmm. But in a striptease, it’s the stripper who actually has power over the spectator.”
“Good point. But that’s the challenge, to be able to resist the animalistic drive to dominate and subjugate. To be able to trust the other while one is weak.”
“So by revealing ourselves, we make the other weak?”
“Then the dynamics are redefined. We become a world of just us two. We are united more profoundly than any two people can be. Because trust subverts the urge for power.”
“Sounds like a theory that needs to be tested,” she says. “Under laboratory conditions.”
“Wanna give it a try?”
“Tell me something.”
“Hmm. Since this is your idea, you go first.”
I tell her I would like to share the story of the lost boy. But in order to do that, she would have to come with me to my parents’ home.
“Okay,” she says. “So you want me to meet your parents.”
“No, my parents are dead. I want you to see the films they shot of the boy.”
“No, that’s okay.”
The next morning we are on the flight to La Napoule.
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