In the end, these ongoing morning panic attacks made my mother worried and she called the doctor.
It was decided that I would take a few drops of medicine a couple of times a day to calm me down. (My father made fun of this Just like in the loony bin.) My mother would say, when people asked her, that I had always been the nervous type. Maybe I was even hyperactive. It was just school, she couldn’t see why I let it get to me so much. She would tell me that my being so nervous, my fidgeting in my seat, made her nervous, so she’d smoke even more in our little common living area while I tried to focus on the cartoons. She’d cough, more and more violently, I’m gonna kick the bucket if this keeps up. I’m telling you, I can hear death knocking at the door.
Sometimes I’d start trembling, shivers that went from the base of my spine up to my neck, movements that were imperceptible to my mother but during which it felt to me as if I were in the grip of irrepressible convulsions. I thought I could get time under my control. I would carefully program each morning task. (Go to the bathroom, make some hot chocolate—with water if there was no milk—brush your teeth—not every day— wash yourself, but no shower, my mother had warned me. She told me over and over We can’t take a bath every day, can’t take showers, there’s not enough hot water. The water heater’s tiny and there’s seven of us, it’s a lot, it’s too much for an itsy-bitsy little tank. And no fancy lip, don’t you dare start talking back to me. You don’t talk back to your mother, you do what she says. End of story. Don’t go telling me you just go refill the tank after a bath and turn the heater on, I can already hear you thinking it, you think you’re so clever. I know how you are. But just you think how much water costs, how much electricity costs, you know we can’t afford it—and then the joke that my mother couldn’t help making: There are bills to pay, and I don’t have a boyfriend at the electric company. On days when we did take baths, my mother insisted that we not empty the tub when we were done, so that all five kids could use the same water and not waste electricity. The last person—and I did everything I could not to be last—was stuck with water that was dirty brown.)
Each of these daily tasks I would execute as slowly as possible. Anything that might put off my arrival in the schoolyard and then in the hallway. Every day I hoped, but never really believed, that I might miss the school bus. It was a little lie I told myself.
A few times a month my mother let me skip school so I could help her with chores around the house Tomorrow you’re not going to school, you’re staying home to help me clean the house because I am sick of doing all this housework on my own, I have to do everything. I’m tired of being everyone’s slave in this dump. She’d also let me stay home if I helped my father chop wood for the winter and stack the logs in a shed he and my uncle had built for exactly that purpose—northern winters, long and hard ones, required several weeks of preparations because houses were poorly insulated and were heated with firewood— or if I took care of my little brother and sister, Rudy and Vanessa, so she could spend the evening at our next-door neighbor’s house. She’d come home with the woman from next door, both drunk and making lesbian jokes I’m gonna eat you out real good you dirty girl. Missing school was my reward.
Another of our neighbors, Anaïs, who always wanted to be nice to me, would come over so we could walk to the bus stop together. I couldn’t find a way to make her understand that I hated her doing this. She forced me to hurry, whereas all I wanted was to walk as slowly as possible, making a few detours. Because she was a girl, it wasn’t such a big deal for Anaïs to be friends with me. Girls can usually talk to fags and get away with it. The few friends I had back then were all girls. It was either Amélie or Anaïs that I’d meet at the bus stop or in the fields around the village where we’d play for a few hours. My mother found this disturbing (little boys should have buddies to play soccer with instead of playing with girls), and would try to find ways to reassure herself and everyone around us. And yet I could still perceive something that wasn’t really uncertainty, but more like a kind of uneasiness whenever she would talk about the subject. She would say to the other women, as if to banish her usual, private thoughts on the matter Eddy’s a real Romeo, he’s always got girls around him, never boys. They are all after him. No chance of him turning out gay, you can be sure of that. Anaïs, in any case, was a somewhat odd girl, who didn’t care at all what anyone else said. She had learned not to care from hearing over and over again what all the women said about her mother when they gathered together in the town center Your mom will bang anyone, she cheats on your dad, everyone’s seen her sleeping with the workers from the town hall construction site. She’s a whore.
We’d be passing, Anaïs and I, in front of the factory, in front of the workers having a smoke before beginning their shift, or else on their break if they were part of the shift that started during the night.
They would be there smoking in all kinds of weather, in the thick northern fog or in the rain. Even if their workday hadn’t really begun yet, their faces—their mugs—their sorry mugs would already be haggard, drooping with fatigue even though they hadn’t even started working. Still, they’d be laughing, telling their favorite jokes about women or Arabs. I would watch them, eagerly imagining myself in their place, desperate to be done with school as soon as possible, counting up—several times a week, several times a day—the number of years that separated me from my sixteenth birthday, when I could finally stop setting out for class each morning, imagining myself where they were, at the factory, earning money and no longer enrolled in school. I’d no longer see the two boys. My mom couldn’t hide her annoyance when I’d tell her I wanted to quit school as soon as I turned sixteen Just so you know, there is no way you are dropping out, ’cause if you do they’ll cut my benefits and that’s just not going to happen.
If, on those days, her most spontaneous reaction came from the daily desperation (money worries) she had to deal with, she would also, from time to time, let me know that she really wanted me to continue my schooling, to go further than she did, she’d practically beg I don’t want you to have to kill yourself with work the way I do, I just messed around back then and now I’m sorry, got knocked up at seventeen. Then the only thing for me was to work my tail off, that’s all I’ve done and I’ve never amounted to anything. No traveling, nothing. I’ve spent my whole life doing housework, stuck at home, cleaning up my kids’ shit or else the shit of the old people I take care of. I screwed up my life. She thought that she had made mistakes, that without meaning to she had closed the door on a better future, on a life that was easier and more comfortable, one far from the factory and from the constant stress (no: the constant state of anxiety) of making sure she didn’t mismanage the family budget—where a small misstep could mean no food on the table at the end of the month. She didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fit in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and nonnegotiable. She didn’t realize that her family, her parents, her brothers and sisters, even her children, pretty much everyone in the village, had had the same problems, and what she called mistakes were, in fact, no more and no less than the perfect realization of the normal course of things.
Excerpted from THE END OF EDDY by Édouard Louis, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2014 by Éditions du Seuil. Translation copyright © 2017 by Michael Lucey. All rights reserved.