Antoine Leiris: ‘I have to be a father and mother. Since this is impossible, I must be a perfect father’ | Autobiography and memoir

July 2016

It is the year after, in the middle of summer. I drop Melvil at his grandmother’s house so I won’t have him under my feet.

Rereading that first line, I realise that now I say “before” or “after”, the way people talk about before or after the fall of the Berlin Wall, before or after the second world war, before or after Jesus Christ. I never say: “Hélène’s death” and even writing it now feels wrong. I just vaguely locate periods of time by specifying “before” or “after”. I understand how brutal and reductive this is: my way of avoiding the obstacle while recognising that it’s impossible.

So, it is the year after, in the middle of summer. Like a burglar, I have planned to act in silence and at night. No music, no light, nothing to enhance the moment. At home, I wait until it is completely dark outside.

It’s nearly time. I open a bottle of rully and sit on the floor with my glass. I have given myself one night but it’s obvious that I’m lying to myself: it won’t be enough. Impossible to accomplish in a few hours what I have been putting off for months: to sort through all her things.

Our apartment is intact; exactly as it was before. Nothing has moved since last year.

As teenagers, we would sometimes play this game: “If you had to take three films to a desert island, which ones would you choose?” A younger me would have said, without hesitation: 2001: A Space Odyssey, so that I could understand the final scene at last; The Verdict, because of Paul Newman; and Quai des Orfèvres, so I could once again hear Louis Jouvet’s curt, husky voice.

Today, the question could be asked in different ways. “If you had to take three objects to remind you of that life, which ones would you choose?”

“If you had to take three objects so that your son would understand what that life was like, which ones would you choose?”

I wish someone could advise me, could tell me: in 10 years, your son will be glad to possess that. In 20, you’ll need this. In 50, you’ll love looking at that object. But I must act alone. I must break apart the love of a whole lifetime into images and instants. Categorise them and tidy them into little boxes. Create another space for them, for her.

Cardboard boxes are piled up in front of me, objects scattered across the floor. The rully doesn’t help. Everything I do feels like a sacrilege. I start trembling when I find her school notebooks. I touch her handwriting with my fingertip. It’s a girl’s handwriting, neat and pretty. The dots over her “i”s are perfect circles.

In another box, I find photographs of her. One of her naked body, taken a few weeks after we met. Tattoos of swallows on her skin. All night long, I desecrate her drawers. I unwrap packages, tear open envelopes, empty jars of makeup.

I keep the things she used most often. Her phone – which I have never opened, afraid of violating her secrets, finding evidence of infidelity or boredom. In the box where I keep my wedding ring, I put all the jewellery that she wore.

Then I think about the logistics: I could categorise her relics according to which period of her life they belonged to, or their usefulness, or their value. I could do it properly, in an ordered way. Instead of which, I just toss everything randomly into cardboard boxes and seal them up. When each box is full, I write on it, in black felt-tip pen: “Hélène”.

The sun rises. I have slept barely three hours. My brother comes to pick up the boxes. We do it quickly, throw them all in the back of his van, in no particular order. Don’t think about it any more. Leave.

I unload everything in the new apartment. I organise Melvil’s bedroom first, then the living room and my bedroom. I want everything to be ready for his arrival. I want it to feel alive. I have told him that this is going to be an adventure. Our apartment building is brand new, all mod cons. Before, I would have hated it. I liked old stone buildings, their beauty and their history. But I am coming round to the benefits of the modern, the new, the ready-made. No befores of any kind.

Once the apartment is in order, I go to pick up Melvil from my mother-in-law’s house. I take her a cardboard box filled with things from the old apartment. I give her back her daughter but keep my wife.

On the way to the new house, I have time to get Melvil excited about this move. I tell him about the room with his toys in it. The new living room. I bought a little table just for him. He’ll be able to draw pictures and eat his afternoon snack there. In the lift, I pick him up so he can reach the button. He thinks this is fun. He smiles. We go inside and I show him the rooms, one by one. He is silent, like a kitten sniffing a bowl of milk for a long time before it starts to drink. I open the door to his bedroom and happiness at last overcomes him – the joy of familiarity. He dives on his box of toy cars.

Tributes outside the Bataclan theatre, 15 November 2015, two days after the Paris terrorist attacks. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

October 2016

I haven’t felt brave enough yet to sort through all the boxes again so when I wanted something to hang on the walls I just took photographs from the top of the pile – images of our first date, our travels, our birthdays, our wedding and Melvil’s birth. I also hung a few paintings that Hélène inherited from her father: Dutch landscapes. I filled the walls and other spaces because I was afraid of emptiness. And also because I was afraid people might judge me. I was afraid they would sniff out my inability to lead this family alone. Those decorations reassured me. Anyone who visits now will see that we are occupying the premises. We are not lacking in anything, or anyone.

The other things from before are stored in cellars, at my brother’s apartment, my sister’s apartment, or in the basement of our new building, eight floors below. Off-camera; out of sight but close by. Hélène’s memory now resides in these boxes. The space is hers. We can visit her. What’s sacred is beneath our feet.

During the first months, whenever I go down to the basement, Melvil demands to come with me. We put some other furniture in there, but we don’t touch her belongings. We build the pile higher. We add layers. We clear out the passing time. The seasons.

For his third birthday, Melvil’s cot is replaced by a real bed. So the cot goes down to the basement. I open the cellar door. I assess how much is in there and how much space remains. That little room is growing cramped.

I could have opened all the boxes and gone through them. I could also have got rid of the cot. Or simply disassembled it. Instead of that, I suddenly take hold of the boxes filled with Hélène’s clothes and remove them from the tiny space. I feel as if someone else is doing this, not me. I hesitate for a moment and decide to keep her wedding dress, another one with flowers on it that made her look like an Éric Rohmer heroine, and the leather jacket she was wearing that night. All the rest, I decide to throw away without giving myself time to think about it.

Late that afternoon, I pick up Melvil from day care. I take him home and he sees the black plastic bags. I tell him we’re going to carry them downstairs. I grab one. He imitates me, picking up the smallest one. We fill our arms.

Out on the street, we stand up straight. The bin lorry will be here soon. Like all kids his age, Melvil is fascinated by those huge vehicles. Two green men jump from the running board at the back of the lorry. They see us and smile at Melvil. I throw in the first bag, then Melvil – happy and proud to be working alongside his father – helps me carry the rest over there. The two binmen congratulate him. Melvil, standing on the pavement in his pyjamas and slippers, raises his hand to wave at them.

The lorry sets off again with its cloth coffin. It’s over.

May 2017

We have our routine. It gives each of us a rhythm and a role. The routine is a place where we feel happy, safe, cocooned. Habit is comfortable; no expectations means no disappointments. Since the day after, this is what I have clung to. It is the only thing I can get a grip on, a lifebelt in the ocean. Organising each day, setting up simple rules, always on time, everything in its place.

With the aid of this routine, I do what I didn’t think myself capable of doing. I run our household. I schedule every moment of the day. As a father, I tick all the boxes because I am afraid of emptiness. I organise outings, I buy his clothes in advance, I register for everything on time, I clean the apartment every day. Through repetition, I become an expert at housework, laundry in particular. I have come to love the sight of clean laundry hanging out to dry. It is an infinite source of satisfaction.

I add more and more tasks to my weekly schedule. Shopping, cooking, cleaning windows, tidying bedrooms. All of this forms a protective wall around our life.

I have to be two people at once. Father and mother. Since this is impossible, I must be a perfect father. Ideal, irreproachable. It is a battle – against myself and against all the rest who try to think for me. I set up a marking system. Each day, I start with 10 points. If I fail to accomplish a task, I lose a point. So, in the morning, for example, if I make his toast and he eats it while sitting at the table, I keep all my 10 points. If I don’t have time to make his breakfast and we have to rush out the door and I forget his biscuits, then I start my day on nine points. I don’t try to understand what I’m doing. I just want a good mark. I want to be a five-star father.

Hélène Muyal-Leiris, late wife of Antoine Leiris, with their son, Melvil.
Hélène Muyal-Leiris, late wife of Antoine Leiris, with their son, Melvil. Photograph: Courtesy of Antoine Leiris

In the evenings, when I’m alone and the weight of responsibility pins me to the sofa I tally up my points and accept that I have been a five-out-of-10 father. That I must work harder. I promise myself I will try to do better tomorrow.

Then Melvil gets sick. When I was picking him up from day care, they told me he wasn’t feeling well. They said he’d spent all day in his corner and seemed to need rest. I have lots of things to do, and the next day, when I wake up, I check his temperature and decide it’s not too high: I can leave him with the women at the childcare centre. At the end of that day, they repeat what they’d said the day before, more emphatically this time. In the tone of their voices, I hear the beginning of a reproach: “Melvil really isn’t well.”

I act as if I don’t hear this and pretend for another day that everything’s fine. I wait until the daycare ladies turn their advice into an order. “Melvil must stay at home and get some rest. And you should take him to see the doctor.”

It takes the doctor less than a minute to make his diagnosis: bronchiolitis, an ear infection and teething pains. In the days that follow, his temperature continues to rise. By Saturday, he’s completely exhausted. For the past two days, we haven’t slept through the night. In the evening, I take him to my bed. I doze off for a moment. Longer than a moment. A few hours later, I wake up with a start. I heard something. He’s not in the bed. He fell out.

I jump up and hold him in my arms. Hug him tight. Undress him to make sure everything is still there. I watch him as he slowly falls asleep. The next day, when we wake, we are both surprised that we have slept for so long. As if his fall last night brought an end to his fever. He gets up but keeps his arm close to his body. I try to make him move it. He growls at me. I panic and take him straight to the accident and emergency department. The doctor orders some X-rays and a nurse takes us into the radiology room. In this room, which looks like the control room of a Soviet-era nuclear power plant, she tells Melvil to stand up straight. I find myself imitating him. We are two criminals having our mugshots taken. I plead guilty. Guilty of not doing anything, of doing it badly. I am given a suspended sentence: to be a single father.

After a while, the doctor returns, holding the X-ray, and tells me: “He hurt his shoulder but there’s nothing broken.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved. We leave the hospital and it’s a perfect spring day. We decide to grab a chocolate eclair and go for a walk. He holds my hand. Time to lay down my arms. Time to accept a life that I didn’t choose.

December 2017

I decided that it was time. That Saturday, for lunch, I make him ravioli in a bolognese sauce and place his fork and spoon either side of his plate. To start with, he does it himself. He eats three mouthfuls while I watch, sitting on the other side of the table. Then suddenly he stops, signalling that it is now time for me to feed him.

“I’m not going to do that any more,” I tell him. He doesn’t react, so I threaten him: “If you don’t eat it on your own, you’ll have to take your nap without having lunch” – the kind of threat that parents never carry out.

Melvil picks up his spoon while giving me a determined look. Without taking his eyes off me, he plunges the spoon into his bowl, pulls out a ravioli, red sauce dripping from it. Then, looking pleased with himself, he drops it on the living-room floor. I tell him that, if he does that again, I will carry out my threat.

Antoine and Melvil in Paris, 2016.
Antoine and Melvil in Paris, 2016. Photograph: Thibault Montamat

He does it again. It takes me less than a second to react. I slam his bowl against the table, in the process painting the ceiling red. My anger is cold and hot. I pick him up and put him in his bed. When I close the door, I am still trembling with rage. He didn’t dare utter a word.

Alone in the living room, in a panic, I send messages to all the mothers and future mothers I know, telling them what I’ve done. At last, my sister replies. I tell her what happened, distorting the facts just enough to make my reaction appear justified. She says I did the right thing, even if it’s not something she’d ever have dared do herself. An hour later, unable to stand it any longer, I open his bedroom door. My son is sleeping, fists clenched.

When he wakes up, the storm is not completely over. We play together all afternoon but I don’t feel whole with him. The guilt makes me awkward and clumsy.

His nanny arrives at nightfall. I kiss him as if I’m about to set off on a long journey and I leave.

A theatrical troupe has adapted You Will Not Have My Hate for the stage in Paris. Every time I received an invitation from them to see it I replied: “Later.” I thought: “Never.” But eventually, I felt I had to attend the play, to find out how it would make me feel.

I ride the metro to the Théâtre du Rond-Point, where my life is being performed. The house lights fade to black. I feel as though the spectators have all turned towards the back of the theatre. I know this is coming from me. I know that nobody saw me come in, but all the same I feel like they’re watching me, judging me, and I feel a sense of shame at letting them perform the spectacle of our life on stage.

Soon, I’m swept along, just one of many faces in the audience. I think the actor playing me is doing a good job – he’s younger, or perhaps he’s just lived fewer lives – and there are moments of truth and grace. There’s that anecdote, when the father is trying to cut his son’s fingernails and he thinks he’s cut off his finger. There are those people who accost him in the street, whose voices he doesn’t hear. There are the little jars of food from the mothers of the other daycare kids. There is the letter that the father reads at the funeral. The puddle of water that father and son jump into as they leave the cemetery.

All of this resembles us but it’s not us. The writing has frozen us in a moment that no longer exists. As I watch, I understand that this other father inside me, this ideal, is a fiction. I am going to leave behind this burden, the quest for perfection. I will settle for roughly, almost, not quite. The play frees me. I don’t have to carry it any more.

As I leave the theatre, I turn on my phone. A text from my sister: “Hello Antoine. Since we’ll be skiing at Christmas, I wanted to ask in advance if you had any ideas about a present for Melvil?”

I reply: “A new papa.”

I think about him. I can’t wait to see him and I can hear myself telling him: “Who cares about the bolognese stains on the ceiling! From now on, you and I are going to play. I’ve found our life again. And it’s an exclamation mark.”

January 2019

I receive a message from my friend Michel. He invites us to go with him to Brittany for a few days, to the place where he grew up.

It’s beautiful. One day, we set off for the end of the world. In Brittany, each B-road exit leads to an end of the world. We stop at a beach to make sandcastles. We put our bare feet in the icy water, dig holes to bury our bad memories. It’s springtime and Melvil is wearing a jumper with a fire engine on it. The air is still and the sea grey.

I tell him we came on holiday not far from here with Mama once, when he was a baby. We rented a car to make the trip. I tell him he was so young that he spent the nights sleeping beside us in a Moses basket.

At the end of the garden, there was a cliff and – 15 or 20 metres below – a beach that looked almost exactly like the one where we are now. I remember the wind, blowing so hard that it seemed to knock on the door. I open that door and recall the first summer in Paris that we spent together, inseparable. How beautiful Hélène was. Anger gives way to love. I remember it at last. I let myself remember it. How much I loved her.

Over the past four years, I have only let her come to me once a year – on All Saints’ Day, when I go to her grave, alone, to talk to her. But now, on the beach with Melvil, the wind blows and, I feel her there, around us. Looking at me from the sea with his spade, I think he can sense a presence too, that he can tell I’m not alone here on the sand. There are three of us now.

No more anger, no more anything, just gusts of presence. Our mourning can begin.

“Yes,” I say, out loud. “Look, he’s growing up.”

The ghost has found her place. She is no longer roaming my mind, no longer haunting our home. She is part of our family.

Life, After by Antoine Leiris, translated by Sam Taylor, is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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