First Person

Constance Debré. Photograph by Adam Peter Johnson. Courtesy of Flammarion.

Three years ago. We’re at the Flore, sitting outside, rue Saint-Benoît. It’s summer. I’m dipping my black-pepper potato chips in some ketchup. I’ve ordered a club sandwich, he’s having a croque monsieur. He’s my ex. The first man I was with, and until further notice, the last. We’re actually still married because we never got a divorce. We lasted twenty years, he and I. It’s been three years since I left him. His name is Laurent. With our eight-year-old son, with Paul, we do alternate weeks, all civil, we’ve never had any problems. A few months ago I switched to girls. That’s what I want to tell him. That’s the point of this dinner. I picked the Flore out of habit. We met here when we were twenty, it became one of our haunts. I grew up here, I’ve never really lived anywhere else. But I don’t go to the Flore anymore. I quit my job as a lawyer, I’m writing a book, I’ve got the tax people on my back and no cash to my name. It’s a pain, obviously, but it’s not important. So I spit it out, I say, I’ve started seeing girls. Just in case there was any doubt in his mind, with the new short hair, the new tattoos, the look in general. It’s basically the same as before, obviously just a bit more distinct. It’s not as if he never had his doubts. We had a little chat about it, a good ten years ago. I said, Nope, no idea what you’re talking about. I mean I’m dating girls, I say to him now. Fucking girls would be more accurate. He says, All I want is for you to be happy. This, I don’t reply, sounds like a lie but it suits me fine. He’s barely touched his croque monsieur, he lights a cigarette, calls the waiter over, orders more champagne. That’s what he’s drinking these days, he says it agrees with him, that it makes him feel less shitty in the morning. The check comes, he pays, we leave. Instead of going his own way on le boulevard Saint-Germain, he walks me towards the Seine. When we get to my door, he goes to follow me upstairs, as if we hadn’t been separated for three years, as if I hadn’t just told him what I’d just told him. I say no. He says, Have it your way.

The next day he messages me, Yesterday was nice what are you doing tonight? I thought we’d settled things but maybe he’s thought about it and wants to talk some more. We’ve hardly seen each other in three years, I liked it just fine that way. But I agree to meet him, I tell myself I probably owe him that much. He comes to pick me up outside my house in a taxi, it looks like he’s made an effort, he’s made reservations at a restaurant in another district, a fairly chic place in the courtyard of an hôtel particulier. He talks to the waiters like a regular, he orders a good wine like a connoisseur, he acts like some guy trying to impress his girlfriend. Maybe this is what he does now with girls, maybe he wants to show me, try out his techniques. He wanted to meet but he’s not saying anything, he’s not asking any questions, not a word about yesterday, nothing about him or me, we talk about holidays, foreign countries, books we’ve read, as though we’re politely humoring each other on a date that’s not going anywhere. He wants us to walk home together, I make sure there’s enough space between our bodies, not too close, not too far, as if everything were normal. The Marais, the Seine, the Notre Dame, we’re like a couple on honeymoon. Once again he walks me right to my door, once again he wants to come up with me, to kiss me, once again he seems surprised when I say no.

In October, I bring up the subject of divorce. There’s a girl I’ve been seeing since summer. She’s young, she doesn’t like the fact that I’m married. She’s been on my case, she keeps making scenes, in the end I give in. And she’s right, it isn’t healthy, I call him my ex, he still calls me his wife. I invite Laurent for coffee, one day, then another day, he says he doesn’t have time, he’s avoiding me. In the end I send him an email. I want to get divorced, it’d make things clearer for everyone, come over for dinner one night and we can talk, take care. Stop you’re turning me on. That’s his reply, which he sends in an email. In the moment, I find it funny. A little crazy, but funny.

Fifteen days later, around Halloween, he tells me something’s up with Paul. He says he’s keeping him, that there’s no need for me to pick him up. He says Paul can’t stand me, that he’s rolling around on the floor, that he hates me. I go over. My son is rolling around on the floor. He hates me. At this point, I don’t make any connection between the facts, between the father and the son. Maybe Laurent’s right, maybe Paul does hate me, maybe it is my fault, maybe I have done something wrong. I try to understand what I’ve done, what I’ve failed to do. I haven’t been giving him as much attention recently, I have to admit. I’ve been there the whole time but I’ve been a little distracted. I’ve been writing my book. You don’t have space for anyone when you’re writing. And then there were the girls. At first, I didn’t say anything to Paul. But in the end, we had a chat. Not right away, not about the first girl, nor the second, but the third girl he met in passing, he liked her. He said, Why don’t we go on holiday with her, that would be nice. But I told him we couldn’t, we’d just broken up, I explained. I asked him whether he’d already suspected something, whether it bothered him. He’d already suspected something, it didn’t bother him. We went out, he took my hand, we went to get a soda at La Palette downstairs, we were both in a good mood, we often were, come to think of it. We carried on as before. There were the weeks where he stayed with me and I took care of him, then there were the weeks where he stayed with his dad and I took care of the girls. I was always careful. Everything was going well. I know it was. Some things you just know.

Since November, Paul’s been staying with his dad, I don’t see him anymore, I don’t speak to him anymore. Every time I propose something, Laurent either refuses or doesn’t reply. Nothing, no news, not a word. The weeks go by, then the weeks turn into months. I don’t threaten to take him to court, I don’t want to make things worse. One day, when I’m feeling fed up, more so than usual, I go over to his, to theirs. Laurent opens up, doesn’t say a word, goes to the living room. Paul’s in his bed, duvet pulled over his head, head on the pillow. Laurent’s in the next room, smoking. I speak to Paul but he doesn’t move, doesn’t look at me, doesn’t answer me. I try different tones of voice, I ask him how he is, I try to make him laugh, I talk about something else, I ask him what this is all about, I say, Come on, come and get a Coke downstairs with me, he doesn’t open his eyes, he doesn’t move a muscle, he’s tense, stubborn, heavy as lead. Finally I lose my temper, I yell at him, That’s enough now, get up, get dressed, come with me just for five minutes. He gets out of bed, he goes to his dad in the living room, he hides behind him, he’s shaking and yelling, he tells me to go to hell, he gives me the finger. Laurent points at the door and yells, Now get out. I look at him and realize he’s stronger, physically stronger than me, the fact that we’re the same height, that we wear the same clothes, that we occupy space in the same way, that we speak at the same volume, none of that makes any difference. That’s when I realize that the difference between a man and a woman is just a question of weight and muscles. I look at Laurent and see he’s thinking the same thing, I look at Paul standing behind his dad and see there’s nothing I can do, I tell myself this is between them, their little guy thing, I shrug my shoulders, I leave.

At the local dive bar run by a Chinese family, I tell my friends from the swimming pool what happened. Dominique and Ming say, That’s crazy, you have to do something, speak to Laurent’s parents, go to the police. André says, Leave it, it’ll be all right, your son will come round sooner or later. He says something similar happened with his daughter after his own separation. It all worked out in the end.

Fall comes and goes, then winter, then spring. The whole time I wait for things to settle, I figure they’ll get tired eventually, I try to speak to Laurent, try to see Paul. There’s no getting through, it’s the Berlin Wall. I haven’t seen Paul for six months. A friend of mine, a family lawyer, offers to help me. For free, seeing as I’m broke. When summer comes around, he files for divorce on my behalf with a request for urgent measures to be granted so I can see Paul every other week, just as before. I say to myself, worst-case scenario, I’ll have him for half the school vacation and on weekends, just like any dad who walks out on his family.

The hearing is set for the end of July. One year after the episode at the Flore. Two days before the hearing, I receive Laurent’s written submissions, signed by his lawyer. He’s applying for sole custody with termination of my parental rights. He’s accusing me of incest and pedophilia committed against my eight-year-old son, directly or through involvement of a third party. He’s written about my homosexual friends “who may or may not be pedophiles.” He’s included a picture of my son sitting outside on a terrace with one of my fag friends the day we went to get a soda together, a photo of a sign that reads DANGER! HUNTING that I found in a field and kept on my desk, near Paul’s bedroom door. He’s quoted passages from books selected from my bookshelves, Bataille, Duvert, Guibert. He’s putting everything together, making his case, sowing doubt. My nine-year-old son has written a letter to the court saying that living with me is inhumane, that his dad says I’m insane, and he agrees. He says he doesn’t want to see me anymore.

The hearing lasts fifteen minutes, Laurent’s lawyer reads passages from Crazy for Vincent, as if I were Hervé Guibert’s narrator, as if Paul were the young boy he sleeps with in the book, the judge stares at the tattoo poking out from beneath my sleeve, she asks me why I’m writing a book and what it’s about, she wants to know why I speak to my son about my homosexuality, she says that these subjects are not appropriate for children, that it’s not a question of legality, it’s a question of morals, she’s sure I can understand, I am, after all, an intelligent woman.

The judge’s ruling is issued a few days later. She’s appointed a psychiatrist to examine all three of us. She’s giving him six months to hand in his report. As always when it comes to legal matters, the time frame is just a guideline. It could take a year, two years, three years. In the meantime, Laurent has been granted sole custody. I have only limited, supervised visitation rights, according to the ruling. One hour every fifteen days at an association, a “meeting space” near République, where pedagogical experts will monitor meetings between me and Paul, just like they do for some (but not all) moms on crack or dads who beat their kids. “Unless the parties agree otherwise,” it says. “Until we have a clearer understanding of the situation,” explains Madame C., family judge at the Judicial Court of Paris. I appeal, but it doesn’t halt the proceedings. The decision and its provisional enforcement still apply. There won’t be a hearing for two years. Two years might as well be a thousand years. Two years might as well be never.


Translated by Holly James.

Constance Debré is a writer and former lawyer whose books include Nom and Play Boy. This previously unpublished piece is adapted from Love Me Tender, which will be published in late September 2022 by Semiotext(e) (U.S.) and Tuskar Rock Press (UK).