A desire for traces
Emma Lochery - Metallic Days
I began to be afraid of forgetting, as if, unless I wrote everything down, I would not be able to retain anything of the life that was running away [...] This panic of losing my traces was accompanied by a fury to preserve and classify.
– Georges Perec
Even as a child, wherever he went, he had to leave a trace. A scribble on a school board. A boot print in the soft soil of the garden. A pebble along a path. A furrow in the snow. A booger under a restaurant table. His exploration of the world needed landmarks. It soothed him. At any moment, one could see his anxious gaze, two small blue eyes searching for something to make a mark: a pen, a piece of chalk, his hand, a sheet of paper, a stick. And how much crying and sorrow when this craving was prevented.
In adolescence, his desire for traces took on a decidedly mental form. He was less obsessed with placing material remains here and there – although he continued to do so uncontrollably – than with making lists of things in his mind. As if he feared he suffered from one of those diseases that dismember elderly memories, he exercised his brain by listing series. The names of all the neighbours, one of which – Gabor Csíkszentmihályi, a corpulent old Hungarian who carried his violin everywhere – had been particularly difficult to remember; the streets that led to the Lycée – Rue des Myosotis, Rue des Poussins, then Avenue Foch, Rue des Châteaux, Impasse des Roses, turn onto Boulevard Churchill, Square Napoléon, before landing on Rue de la Paille – and the species of trees that lined the road – mainly beeches, birches, weeping willows, he knew all of them; the countries and cities he would like to visit, with Argentina (and its footballers!), Japan (and its sumo wrestlers!) and Dniepopretrovsk in Ukraine (because its pronunciation was so complicated that it made his imagination explode); the brands of cars; the clothes that people wore from which he drew typologies. He listed humans he met, the number of friends he had, what he ate, what he drank, how many times he peed a day or sneezed, producing a rigorous accounting of his existence. His inventories rolled out of his brain like tickets from the cash register. When he entered university, he decided without hesitation to study pharmaceutics. This would give him the opportunity to methodically classify thousands of drugs, but also to measure the differential residues they left in the body. In an adult, a small dose of aspirin is eliminated in two or three hours, while a Valium takes thirty to forty hours to disappear.
This appetite for traces had also colonised his encounters with women. As a young man, he met a great many partners – a Senegalese dancer, a skinny philosopher, a pro-Palestinian Jewish anthropologist, a Chinese restaurant manager, a vintage clothing and essential oil saleswoman, a far-right Flemish politician, a Bosnian card shooter, among others. Several of them got pregnant, and each time he disappeared without a care about what would become of his offspring. The list of his children is too long to be detailed. When his budget allowed it, he would close his drugstore – the Pharmacie Livide – for a few days and set off for Chile, Ghana or the Galapagos with the sole mission of fertilising the world. But he still didn’t have enough. So, he registered at a sperm bank to further satisfy his desire to persist. He now had descendants in every corner of the globe.
As time went on, it was no longer enough to leave genetic traces. I later realised that Livide was constantly experiencing the dissolution of his being. He was striving to immortalise himself through these remnants. This is what obsessed Michel Livide. That once his life ended, there should be something remaining of him. Something that would endure his frail materiality. To achieve his goal, he also began to sculpt, paint, film, sing and scribble stories. He joined a rather conservative but humanist political party and managed to get invited into the media. He ran for local elections and displayed all over the region his round face, azure eyes and the bald spot of a portly man in his forties. He mobilised for various causes: car-free zones, abused women, undocumented migrants, windmills, mixed-community well-being. On social networks, he left abundant comments as memories of his thereness. Day after day, he was accumulating evidence of his presence, not because he wanted to be famous, but because his whole organism was struggling for persistence. From his thousands of interventions in the world, he told himself, something would last. Perhaps one day, even long after his death, one of his paintings or songs would become part of the national heritage. Or a street be named after him in memory of his political achievements. He had considered the possibility of violent action, a bomb or hostage-taking – maybe that would make a line in the history books – yet the idea of putting other people’s lives at risk was contrary to his humanistic ideals and he was immediately dissuaded.
When I found out about Michel Livide, he was the chemist in my neighbourhood. Known to all, he devoted considerable energy to greeting and complimenting people in order to leave a solid neural trace in the brains of those who interacted with him. As for me, I had just moved in the area after yet another painful break-up and, as usual, I was out of my antacid pills. Livide kindly helped me out as I promised him a medical prescription the following week. I was surprised by his insistence that the half-life of Maalox Control 20mg was one hour maximum and that it would be eliminated from my body quickly. Which chemist tells you how long it takes for drugs to clear? I returned regularly to acquire my sleeping pills and other benzodiazepines and we talked about various subjects. He was a chatty guy and loved to share his passion for the Great Men of history, but also for museums and art collections. I imagined him living in a jungle of books about Napoleon and Jesus Christ, in the midst of busts of Julius Caesar and photos of Gandhi and Buddha. He chose his words with particular care, as if each was a messenger intended to reach a target. I remember he liked to use the phrase ‘for what’s left of it…’ with a fatalistic smile, as if everything was measured by its resilience.
Then, one day, Livide invited me to drop by his apartment and continue our discussions – his monologues – over a cup of coffee. I am not a social person and I hesitated, but not daring to say ‘no’ and perhaps with a touch of curiosity too, I accepted. It was a rainy Sunday; Livide lived alone in the flat above the Pharmacie. I caught a glimpse of his bald head through the window. He was waiting for me. The big iron curtain rose painfully. The door next to the shop window opened with a buzz, and I entered the corridor that led to his floor as the iron curtain closed after me. Gosh. I was trapped. Livide greeted me with his usual stiff smile and offered me a grip that left some of his DNA in the palm of my hand.
Contrary to what I had fantasised, the man lived in an almost completely empty space. A table, four chairs, a small sofa, a rudimentary kitchen. No decorations, no photographs. It smelled of mouldy pizza crusts. In the middle of the bedroom, which I discovered on my way to the bathroom (the toilet bowl was smeared with streaks…), was a single bed, next to which sat a digital piano, an Apple computer and a wooden easel. The latter displayed a clumsy painting – something like a child’s drawing or what you might call primitive art – of Dali’s Persistence of Memory with its dripping soft watches.
‘I’m never at home,’ Livide said, smiling. ‘I’m always in the drugstore. And I travel a lot,’ he added, as if he had to justify the simplicity of his interior.
He put a cup of steaming coffee in front of me and immediately started a long digression on the radioisotopes used in biochemistry whose half-life can be counted in seconds, decades, thousands and even billions of years. He knew the subject with perfection, and juggled easily with Potassium 40, Polonium 216 and Carbon 14. Not once did he ask me about myself. Whenever I tried to jump into the discussion, he stared blankly, as if he was watching someone behind me, and then went on to tell the story of some famous individual and rushed to his computer to check the accuracy of some details on Wikipedia. One sensed that he was a lonely man who needed to talk and, perhaps, to be listened to (so do I, and yet I don’t bore anyone with my obsessions, except you dear readers). Afterwards – it was already 6pm, my politeness will be my coffin – he made us a steak. He poured me a glassful of a strong, aniseed-scented liqueur which he described as ‘oriental pharmacopoeia’. The little cups passed faster than I can remember. And so, fairly tipsy, Livide began to tell his story. He recounted his biography in the tone of a panegyric, in the third person, from the childhood boogers, the lists of adolescence, his sperm disseminated all over the cosmos, and his current projects of artistic, political and media visibility. An archaeologist of the future could actually follow in his footsteps, he exclaimed with the pasty mouth of a drunk. I still remember the clatter of the iron curtain behind me, the badly lit street, my stumbling steps back home.
Livide never spoke to me like that again. At the drugstore, our encounters were cordial from then on, as if his intoxicated confidences of that evening had condemned him to put me at a distance. Far be it from me to complain, I was rather relieved, though I couldn’t help imagining the poor fellow going about his business of marking out his territory with mementos, discreetly rubbing his inelegant body against the walls to leave some DNA traces, spending his Sundays on the comments sections of major newspapers, painting an unfortunate crust that no one would want to acquire, and planning a forthcoming irresponsible-fertilisation trip.
It was now mid-winter and my need for cortisone to treat my asthma attacks was pressing. For a week, the iron curtain of the store had remained down. Every morning I had dragged my feet to it only to find the door closed. I knew Livide was a nomad, but a week? That seemed a long time. What bothered me was that the first-floor window was slightly ajar. I decided to send him an email and leave a message on his voicemail. Both went unanswered. After two weeks of unbearable worry – I ran out of Valium, so much so that I had to harass another chemist for my soothing potion – I put in a word to Richard, the organic grocer, and to the hairdresser (also natural), Clementine. Nobody had seen Michel Livide. Days passed, and the window was still slightly open. Should I contact the police? I don’t know what prompted me to do what I did, yet one evening I stopped in front of the shop and hung onto the iron curtain which rattled all the way. With my rachitic arms, I pulled up my heavy carcass with all my strength, and miraculously managed to grasp the first-floor windowsill. Two metres from the ground, my body was shaking like the Big One that will one day hit California. I pushed open the window and threw myself inside. My heart rate was 210 and my breath was that of an eighty-year-old heavy smoker.
I was in Livide’s flat. I turned on a red lamp beside the sofa. Nothing had changed since my last visit. The shot glasses were still sitting on the table in the living room. I inspected the bedroom and bathroom. I checked under the bed and in the cupboards. Livide had deserted the place. No trace of him. As a child, I had liked to rummage through my mother’s things, as if I were going to uncover some terrible secret. The same treasure-seeking instinct animated me when I decided to take a look at Livide’s belongings. His dresser drawers were boringly banal: pants, socks, shirts, jumpers. In his bedside table I found earplugs and nose drops. I lifted the mattress. An inspection of the living room and the shower proved equally fruitless. I’ve read about these people who can’t put anything in the garbage, otherwise they’ll go into psychosis. Livide kept nothing. He was saving his project for the outer world.
I turned off the lampshade, switched on the light of my Iphone and, as I was about to slip out, my eyes were drawn to a book on the windowsill. I reached over and grabbed it. It was a travel guide to Lebanon. With one hand I opened it. Many pages were marked and annotated, and a photo fell out of it. A man with a thin beard and thick-framed glasses and a woman in a brightly coloured flowery dress hugging a little blue-eyed boy. On the back, written in pen: Papa, maman, Michel, Beirut, 1974.
Born in 1969, Derek Moss is an author and essayist. His DNA test reveals a mixed bag of Scandinavian, Iberian, African, French, Balkan, Scottish, and Middle-Eastern heritage. He currently lives in Brussels.