Excerpt 11 from Nick Alexander’s gripping 13:55 Eastern Standard Time.
Not Quite Unhappy
The screen flashes momentarily and then settles into the whiter than white of a kitchen ad. Jacques looks over the back of the sofa, and shouts, “C’est ton émission chérie,” – It’s your programme, dear.
“Oui, j’arrive,” Véronique shouts back.
Jacques settles into the armchair and turns back to face the screen, his complexion pale in the strange light.
“Off The Grid,” slides onto the screen.
“Ça commence,” Jacques shouts. – It’s beginning.
“Oui, je suis là,” Véronique says, sliding in beside him. “I can’t wait to see how they get on.”
Jacques slides an arm around her shoulders. “Hey, it’s just TV. You got so wrapped up in it last time.”
“I know,” she says. “But it’s based on a true story. The guy who wrote it, well he actually did all of this.”
“I kind of doubt that it can be as good as the first series,” Jacques says.
Véronique nudges him in the ribs. “Shhh,” she says. “Let’s watch it, eh?”
“Off The Grid Supports Plan International. Helping those who never asked to be off the grid,” the screen says.
“That’s new,” Jacques comments.
“Yeah,” Véronique agrees. “Makes sense though. Quite ironic really. Rich whites choosing to live off the grid. Plan International do those foster children things. I was talking about doing it, do you remember?”
“Yeah,” Jacques says as the screen fades and fills with the narrator’s head. “Well, you know what I think. I think it’s bullshit. Charity bullshit. And charity isn’t what they need.”
“Umh,” Véronique says. “Well, I think it’s got to be better than doing nothing.”
Jacques shrugs. “Huh!” he says.
“God you’re cynical,” Véronique says.
“Jake and Martin fell in love with this log cabin, nestling in the Pocono Mountains, only trouble was, it was off the grid,” the presenter says.
Jacques scans the subtitles. “I’m glad they didn’t dub it again,” he says, talking over the programme. “I hate it when they dub it.”
Véronique nods. “Yeah,” she says. “Now shhhh.”
Images of the previous series scroll across the screen, making the subtitles momentarily difficult to read. “… but now, winter is upon them,” says the narrator. “And it is a winter the like of which Jake and Martin have never seen before.”
As the screen turns white, his face disappears into the glare. Slowly the log cabin appears, barely perceptible beneath a snowdrift. “Mon Dieu!” Véronique says, as the image cuts to Jake peering through the kitchen window at the whiteness of the snow. “Hey Martin,” he says. “It, erm, snowed a bit in the night. You need to like, come and look at this.”
After the programme ends, after Jacques has gone to bed, Véronique sits quietly and wonders. She wonders if Jake and Martin – or whatever the real couple are called – were / are really that happy. She wonders, again, whether such real solidity, such contentment, exists in other people’s relationships. In short, she wonders if couples like Jake and Martin have to go through the same shit that she does.
It’s not that Véronique is unhappy. For Véronique has known unhappiness, like the bored emptiness before she met Jacques, the long winter evenings when she felt she was on the verge of bashing her brains out against the kitchen window, just to stop being bored. So yes, she’s known unhappiness, and so she knows she’s not unhappy. But she’s not quite happy either. Because she has also known the state of pure happiness too, and this isn’t that either. This is nearly happy. Or, if you prefer, not quite unhappy. And she wonders if that is good enough. She wonders if accepting the permanent, comfortable, average state that is this relationship… Well, she wonders if it isn’t like selling your soul to the devil, as if accepting mediocre sex, and accepting a pleasant dull life, in a pleasant dull apartment, with a pleasant dull man… No, that’s not fair. But Véronique wonders if accepting this compromise relationship is actually saving her from the blinding unhappiness of being alone, or if it merely precludes the reorganisation of her life and the meeting of a true soul mate that she really needs.
Of course, sometimes, Véronique really is happy with Jacques, even because of Jacques. What makes her happiest is when she, very occasionally, manages to make Jacques happy. And she hates herself for this. It seems such a stupid, feminine, submissive thing to do. To make one’s happiness dependant on that of her husband. But it does. Making Jacques happy makes Véronique happy.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. For does that not mean that Véronique loves Jacques? This is the proof, isn’t it? Isn’t that the very nature of love? That what makes Véronique most happy in the whole world, is being able to make Jacques happy?
But she doesn’t seem to manage it very often. “Jacques est abonné au malheur,” she thinks. – Jacques has a subscription to unhappiness. His life, it seems to her, is set up as a series of dichotomous pairings of desire and action. So whatever Jacques truly wants is the one thing Jacques can’t or won’t obtain. Jacques wants to be thin, but he can’t stop eating. And he wants to be fit, but he won’t stop smoking. And he wants better sex. But he can’t talk about it. And he hates the city, but his job ties him to Paris … and on and on and on.
Véronique is more pragmatic, maybe even a little simple. She does things she likes, and doesn’t do things she hates. And when she wants something she can’t get – for sure, she would love to look like Kate Winslett – she sighs, regrets, and lets it go.
If you’re busy enough getting what you do want, she figures; if you’re working towards the things that are within grasp, then there just isn’t time for worrying about the unobtainable.
So Jacques’ life, it feels to Véronique, is taut like a rubber band about to snap. And she tries to find solutions, tries to come up with ways they could move out of the city, suggests career options so that Jacques can leave his job, suggests new sexual positions they could try. But Jacques always comes up with a reason why. “Oui, mais…” he will say. “Yes but.” And though Véronique can fight off any number of objections standing in the way of happiness, in the end she always ends up giving in. Jacques’ resistance to change always beats her, always leaves her feeling that her own view of life is over simplified, a little autistic even. It’s as if the idea that you can like what you do, and not do what you don’t like, is somehow vacuous or dumb. Life just isn’t that simple, Jacques seems to be saying.
And sometimes, like now, she begins to wonder if Jacques isn’t already doing what he likes best. She wonders if being unhappy with his lot isn’t maybe the thing that Jacques enjoys the most. Maybe that’s why he does it all the time.
No that’s harsh. Jacques isn’t unhappy all the time. But he’s never quite happy either.
And Véronique in all of that? Frankly she doesn’t care about much – the details of where they live and how they earn a living, of what they wear and who they see, honestly don’t matter to her that much. All she really wants is to spend her time with someone she can make happy. Someone who wants to be happy. And sometimes, like now, she wonders if she hasn’t simply chosen the wrong guy.
Catch up | Part one Eight Million | Part two Ok Sticker | Part three 13:55 Eastern Standard Time | Part four Slipping through | Part five A bus in Berlin | Part six A Really Good Decision | Part seven Yanks and Paddies | part eight Frozen | part nine The slowlands | Part ten Caravan Of Hope