Wedding at Sciences Po

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You find your bride in your lecture theatre, they told me when I was at university at Sciences Po in Paris. But for me, it was in that vast room, which served as both kitchen and dining room in my grandparents’ large house in the Périgord that I gave my heart to a woman.

At Christmas, my cousins and I were welcomed at tea-time by a roaring fire and our hot chocolate – whole milk from the neighboring farm and generously grated flakes of dark chocolate – invariably took on the scent of the wood, or perhaps of the smoked peat, which I rediscovered years later with surprise and nostalgia in certain glasses of old Irish whiskies. The younger ones would amuse themselves by drawing cats’ whiskers on their faces with the froth of the cream; the older ones settled down to a game of dominos or Catalan cards, inherited from a great-grandfather born on the other side of the Pyrenees. On the big polished oak table, that could seat twenty people with ease, sat a rhubarb tart and a great bowl of plum compote, shortbread biscuits and a pot of fresh cream. We would measure the centimetres grown every year by our ability to reach this Holy Grail without standing on a chair or lying on the table, and the day you managed it a bit of your childhood disappeared forever, even though we were not able to appreciate the full import of this at the time.

She was probably the most brazen among the young neighbors and friends who often joined the group of cousins; and when, aged eight, she finally reached the rhubarb tart all by herself, her look of triumph was aimed at me alone, the little Parisian boy who never climbed as high or as fast as the others to the tree-houses perched in the trees in the garden, as well as being the clumsiest on a pony, and the most timid. I stared in bewilderment at the freckles scattered over her face and her long, curly, blonde hair, while she cut a piece of tart, then her still chubby hand felt for mine under the table and placed in it a share of her loot: a lemon shortbread sprinkled with cinnamon.
This biscuit was to remain in my pocket throughout the entire vacation, and I could never bring myself to eat it; I would breath in its scent every night before I went to sleep, gently licking the crumbs that gradually came away from it. I took great care to transfer it from one pocket to another when I changed clothes, but one of my aunt’s huge weekly washing sessions finally put paid to my prudence and devotion.

The summer vacation followed the winter ones with jugs of lemonade or apple juice replacing the hot chocolate. Our first kiss tasted of wild blackberries when, during a huge game of hide-and-seek, she came to furtively crush her cool and slightly sticky lips against mine. At that moment, my perception of the world expanded and became totally focused on my sense of smell: the scent of the storm in her heavy, tangled hair, the lightly acid tang of the blackberries and the aroma, sweeter and warmer, of her skin tanned by the sun.
She was eleven and I was thirteen; I had never kissed a girl before, and that contact, though almost chaste, gave me a glimpse of an unknown and earth-shattering world of sensuality and promises. But, disconcerted, I had no idea how to prolong or return that first kiss. Until the end of the vacation, each dessert of red fruits was torture, and every time I saw her raise to her lips a spoonful of raspberry sorbet or a handful of blackberries, the memory of that kiss would imprint itself on my mind like a burning firebrand. 

Every vacation, I would await her visits, and the passing of time was marked by the gradual fading of her freckles, a memory of childhood which threatened to disappear with adolescence.
When, in the summer of her fifteenth birthday, she came to my room barefoot when we were having our siesta – a tradition that the intense August heat of the Périgord Noir forced us to respect – I was struck dumb as I watched her slide her shorts over her slim hips.
Her body was studded with freckles, even her young breasts which I hardly dared look at. I was still the most timid of the cousins, the one the girls could always make blush with the slightest fit of giggles, the most casual look. My impudent daredevil, my child-woman was standing before me, offering herself with innocence and authority, waiting for a gesture, a kiss, a caress that I did not know how to give out of awkwardness and fear. When my eyes finally lost themselves in the endless depths of her dark obsidian gaze, I knew with a terrible premonition that I had entered the Garden of Eden only to be banished from it in an instant forever.

You get married in your lecture theatre, they told me at Sciences Po and even if I had given my heart to another for eternity, that was in the end what I did too, abandoning the perfumes of the storm and of wild blackberries for those of Guerlain. You can’t escape your fate so easily.

Translated by Wendy Cross


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