Happy Melancholy

Fiction by Marie-Soizic Fraboulet

Published in partnership with Concours d’écriture de Sciences Po, a dual-language writing contest organized by the school of Sciences Po Paris.

Descriptive image of planets in orbit.

We’re linked from the start. Brothers. Two fertilised eggs developing in separate cohabitating bubbles in the warm nest of her belly. I’m bigger, pushing you into a corner. You’re born a few minutes before me, and maybe that’s where it all begins. Our first goodbye.

See you on the other side.

You’ll be the first to breath, the first to be held, the first to see. You’ll be the first they see, your arms twisted slightly from my possessive position. I’ll join you soon, but we’ll already be torn away, caged in two separate plastic boxes tied to tubes. They’ll shake our hands lightly with their index, reaching through the plastic only once every now and then, dressed in white hospital gowns, careful, like we’re porcelain. I’ll feel your presence next to mine, without seeing you.

Are you with them? Without me? Are they holding you? And not me? Are you out of the box yet? Why aren’t I?

A few weeks later, we’ll be out in open air. Stronger. We’ll be reunited in a black velvet maxi- cosi, wearing matching pyjamas. You won’t recognise me, might cry a little, intimidated by that identical stranger staring at you before recognising my smell and skin from those months we spent together in the womb. We’ll be reunited, a double headed monster that slithers through their world, adjusting.

During a few months, I won’t be able to sleep without you next to me, or you without me.

We’ll grow together, become a we. A they to them. I’ll be his and you’ll be hers. We’ll nap together in his arms, eat together at her breasts. I’ll be defined by you and you by me.

We’ll be a team. We’ll be seated on the miniature red plastic table in their tiny kitchen with little glamour because they’ll have decided to invest in children rather than fancy furnishings. I’ll eat the meat and you the vegetables, then we’ll switch our plates: I’ll eat your meat and you my vegetables. You’ll have his big melancholic eyes and I’ll get her piercing blue ones. I’ll be the first to walk, you the first to talk. I’ll walk to them, but will always need your translation. When you get tired from screaming for milk at night, I’ll take over. We’ll be playground friends, bath buddies, prank mates. One day, we’ll dig up the large green plant in the entrance. She’ll catch us, bathe us and when she’s busy drying you off in that bathrobe embroidered with your name, I’ll run off, naked under mine, to finish our mission.

We’ll be happy for a while. Me, you and them. Our third goodbye will soon arrive. You’ll go with Granny by the sea and I with uncle to the countryside. They’ll say new visions and places await, but they’ll just seem infertile and watered down.

After that goodbye, they’ll be so much ahead to conquer and try without you. So many others to taste. Lost in the fast pace of the excitement, you might forget me. Then, maybe, brushed by a smell, sight or thought, you’ll think of me. Everything will be tinted in the colour of your absence. I’ll wonder what first firsts you’re living without me.

At the end of the holidays, when they pick us up, you’ll be collected first. You’ll get to tell them about your adventures – to be alone with them. I’ll wonder what that family would have been like if I hadn’t made it out with you. A family without my sudden tantrums and mischiefs, with a single stroller and nicer living-room furniture. A triangular family of three where you’d be their crown jewel, holding both of their hands as you’d make your first steps.

As the car pulls up near Granny’s house, I’ll break free of her thin, wrinkled hand and run through the lawn towards you all. She’ll have her arms opened, ready to hold me – her son – for the first time after her first holidays away from us since the plastic boxes. I won’t run into her arms but into yours. I’ll hold your little body, which is also mine, against my own.

She’ll always be frustrated that she didn’t get to hold us sooner and longer against her skin after we were born. We’ll have been rushed immediately to the plastic boxes, and I think she’ll never really get over it. She’ll be emotional for every goodbye. Unprepared. Incapable. Unwilling. She’ll hang on to us, a castaway latched to its raft. She’ll be abnormally emotional for our first day of school and hate our girlfriends. She’ll shut herself in her room when we tell her we plan to move out after we graduate. She’ll never accept that all she got to do was shake our little hands with her index through the plastic box. She’ll cry herself to sleep when we’ll take turns wailing at night. He’ll have to hold her in their bed and force her to resist.

We’ll be happy, all four of us. Four is a good number for a family. Symmetrical. His and her’s. Not so small that children grow up lonely; not so big that each child feels insignificant and forgotten in a mass of voices and personalities.

But then they’ll decide to have it: the third child. They’ll hope for a girl but first get a boy. But that will only be the first try. They’ll try once. Twice. Thrice. We won’t know how many times. We won’t know at all. We’ll be left at Granny’s while she’ll go to the clinic to bleed one out after the other. But then one will finally hold, and it will be her. She’ll finally arrive. The blessed one. The one they waited and cried for. They’ll give us toys when they’ll introduce us, saying they’re a gift from her. They’ll tell us a name but it will be long and difficult to remember. You’ll baptise her Doodoo and so will I.

She’ll be bigger and louder than we were. Born after nine months, not seven. She’ll have large dopey eyes like yours and fat rosy cheeks like mine. She’ll talk and walk. They’ll be convinced she’s tiny and fragile, but we will know she’s tough. You’ll fall in love with her before I do. With her hair, the same colour as yours, and her nose, the same shape as yours. It will feel like saying our goodbyes all over again. Only this time, you’ll be close but somehow feel far away. I’ll wonder what you’re thinking even when you’re right next to me.

You’ll be hopeful and filled with a happy melancholy that only we know the secret of – the feeling of beginnings as endings still linger around. One smelling the scent of his family home on the clothes he is unpacking into his first apartment. I’ll feel forgotten, dropped by the side of the road like the stuffed animals you’ve outgrown. We won’t be the same size anymore so she’ll bring us to a mall. You’ll dig a grave for our matching outfits that you had in red and I, in blue, our matching backpacks and matching shoes. You’ll throw our team’s uniform away and pick new boxers with smileys on them. We’ll walk out of the mall, each alone now, like soldiers rising from the corpse of our dead companion on no-man’s-land, with the rage and brashness to confront anything. The truth is you’ll penetrate the threshold of that time they call the brink—before me. You’ll be on the edge of an unknown land they call adolescence I won’t yet know of. While you’ll swim among the high waters unleashed by the broken dam of puberty, I’ll face the daily needle of somatreopleopin, a growth hormone, to bridge the ever-growing void between your body and mine. I’ll wonder when we grew so different when only a few years before you were my mirror reflexion. Your smell will change, become stronger and acid, and I will see you rubbing your hands against your face in the mirror often, examining the black hairs that will spurt on your chin. Hairs that won’t spurt on my chin before a while.

You’ll read all the books in the house and ask for more. You’ll take Latin and German. You’ll play by their rules at a time where I’ll need my own. I won’t get along with him, because I’ll be too much like him. I’ll have his hair, his wits and his temper. Be as stubborn and competitive. I’ll be so much like him, that he will project too many things on me and I’ll make all the choices he made and wait in vain for the “I’m proud.” I’ll need to prove myself, to be heard. I’ll grow a mohawk, learn to play the electric guitar. I’ll be edgy everywhere you’ve been straight. I won’t listen, stare pensively at the windows in the classroom and intensively at the class clock’s two hands, minutes and seconds, making their way around at different rhythms, blending into one every now as one eclipses the other. I’ll be stuck in something I can’t name, act out. I’ll meet those doctors with notebooks, coloured shapes and tests. You’ll meet them too, without me. You’ll wonder what they’ve told me, and if they told you too. They’ll move me to a higher grade and that will be our fourth goodbye. I’ll be alone on that battle field of school, without rage, without brashness, crouching half-way out from the trench afraid and lost. I’ll look back and see you comfortable. Sociable. Adapted. There’ll be no turning back; I’ll leave the pit and you in it behind.

We’ll start to fight, with Doodoo screaming shrilly after us. She’ll be scared of seeing us against the other but will finally feel like one of us, three lone wolves. We’ll be defiant, mean, feverish. We’ll circle each other like gnarling dogs, neither one of us daring to pound first. To punch for real. To break our tacit contract of brotherhood. Until one of us will – making our brotherly cell pop as the first knock resonates in our hand, in our jaw.

I’ll be a year above you and discover many firsts before you – high school, clubbing, the taste of beer in my mouth and the feel of weed in my lungs – but you will still be the one who breathed first, who saw them first. The one they held and looked at first. I’ll be a year above but still feel like your second in command on a boat circumnavigating the murky waters of growing up with tinnitus and night time walks, with nothing and everything to fear and not a care in a world. I’ll dream of becoming a pilot – anything to fly away from a foggy life going around in circles, yet never reaching its inescapable fate. I’ll carve through new paths to adulthood to outrun the fated train of comfort – the one we think we leave forever one night as we step off to become men but surprise ourselves boarding again a few years later to travel far from the bustling capitals of light and sound to raise children in white houses with green lawns to mow on Sunday. I’ll overhear them one night, her saying, “Staying true to yourself while giving it all…it’s what’s family is about.”

I’ll notice cracks and smudges on the glass of our snow globe life. I’ll see you grow from my brother to a stranger. I’ll see boys turn evil in manhood, wanting more of girls than I thought we could ever ask. I’ll start noticing the bitterness of regret in some voices. I’ll realise that if things happen for a reason, I’ll have to be almost all of these reasons, that the world won’t wait. I’ll think I can leave it all on the tarmac of long flights that take off to unknown lands. I’ll think I can escape that world and its overpouring of information, of massacres, of catastrophes. I’ll think I understand it all. A world where time is ticking backwards, circling back to sexless and prude teenagers, to molesting priests, to World Wars, back to a time where some feared for their lives based on the colour of their skin, back to an age of ecological ignorance.

I’ll understand you never escape these things. I’ll understand that you never forget the people you’ve said goodbye to. I’ll understand that even after a night of loving embrace, when the morning sun rises, orange-like, fruity and full, they will leave. They’ll put on the cold mask of indifference and coolly depart from what could have been a warm and sun-lit embrace. We would have been those luminous beings of golden flecks in Klimt’s Kiss, them – pale and ethereal, knelt in a flock of flowers – me tall and strong, hands around their face, my cape covering their body. But that won’t happen. We’ll deconstruct the tent that will lay pathetically broken in the mud, next to the sleeping bags that welcomed our sweat and hormones, testosterones, endorphins, oxytocin, adrenaline, now evaporated into the early air of what was and what could have been.

I’ll be a year above but still be shorter, nearly as short as Doodoo, who will see the doctors and move up a grade too. She’ll adapt because that’s how she’ll be – easy – but I won’t because that’s how I’ll be – complicated. They’ll say it’s just the way I am. I’ll hear them whispering it at night in their room, feel my name in the conversation, pulling my ear to the door’s keyhole. You’ll even say it to me once – “You’re just complicated” and it will ring through my mind until I die.

I’ll be defined by my difference to you. And you by me.

You’ll fall in love and so will I but we won’t know anything much about it until that day, during Sunday lunch years from now with both our partners, when your gaze will meet mine over the roasted chicken. For a brief second there, I’ll know that you’re thinking about that happy melancholy that only we know so well. Where things come to die on the shores of new worlds and possibilities.

Before that, we’ll both leave the house. He’ll drive us each to our new homes, fixing leaking faucets, dead light bulbs and painting our walls with the colours of exile. He’ll hug me tightly and say, “I’m proud of you.” I’ll wonder if he said it to you too. If he cried during the drive back.

He’ll cry during the drive back, think of the day I said my first words, “Hey Dad, come see,” think of the times he read admiration in our eyes. He’ll think of the days he was still my hero, and wonder how and when that changed, maybe when I told him, “I’ve always felt like an impostor in this family.” He’ll think of the nights he laid awake expecting our cries or the afternoons he watched us ride our bicycles ready to come running if we fell. He’ll remember the way we felt, both nestled in each of his arms, the little humans he created – now men.

She’ll stay at home, brooding on Doodoo like her last remaining egg with caution, knowing that if she sits on it too hard, it won’t hatch. She’ll struggle, because she won’t ever have gotten over the plastic boxes. Doodoo will soon leave too, more promptly and further away than us, needing air, space, illicitness and newness. Freedom and her own firsts. She’ll turn back to look at them, just before everything starts, at that moment when the sun of adulthood sprouts from the lonely, hesitant and impatient soil of adolescence, washed away in a red river in her boyfriend’s laundry machine.

Being away from each other, we’ll learn what it is to be outside of our family, to define ourselves without each other. You’ll discover you’re not that easy, I’ll learn I can be uncomplicated while Doodoo discovers she can be anything – that we never had a monopoly over ambition, creativity and wits.

One day, you’ll pack your bags and drive yourself to the station. You’ll leave without a word, catch a train at dawn – that crisp hour where lovers can still part as strangers before the anonymous veil of the night is peeled off and the hazy night – fogged by tobacco fumes now lying dead and cold against the rug – evaporates. You’ll fly to the other side of the world, escaping to a different language and time zone. We’ll all be surprised. We’d all thought that our two languages brought us together, because we’ll have been rocked to bilingual rhymes in their arms, half-way across the English Channel. We’ll be three against the world, we’ll be able to communicate without being understood by others. In French in England and in English in France. We’ll be different to our cousins, we’ll be different to our friends.

But then you’ll abandon James and the Giant Peach, the marbles we played with and our secret codes to make something of your own. You’ll leave to see all those unknown Selves and unknown Others you’ll have yet to taste. You’ll leave with that spark in your eye, a fire in your heart, ready to confront yourself to self-doubt. You’ll leave. You’ll leave to make your body feel, to test its strength and your mind under the brazing heat of South America. You’ll sleep in old Inca towns under starry skies. You won’t recognise the constellations or the sights. You won’t recognise yourself. But you won’t escape your shadow – so I’ll be there, with you, almost knowingly.

You’ll feel like we’ve been paused while you’re away but then cards in the mail will confront you to the inevitable fact that, we too, are living without you.

You’ll miss Doodoo’s graduation and her first publication. You’ll miss his victory in that regatta he had promised to win for us, when we were still light enough to both sail with him on his catamaran. You’ll miss the moment Alina gets sick. Our second mother. That laughing and sunny presence, her scrunchies, her gardening gloves, her perfume samples in the bathroom. You’ll miss the moment we’ll all hold our breath as she lies in a hospital bed. You’ll miss her leaving, burning out like a candle in a windy night. You won’t get to feel how life beats stronger and deeper after that. You’ll miss the big events – the ones you had promised yourself never to miss. You won’t write back.

You’ll change without realising it until one day when, shaving in the bathroom of your Peruvian apartment, staring at your reflection in the mirror, you’ll see your eyes are slightly hollowed out, your bumpy cheeks have melted away in the days where you beat dawn and were the first on the field, ploughing the earth more vigorously than any of the others because you had something to prove to yourself. You’ll imagine them talking about you with friends or family, at dinner parties, at work. You’ll be the one that has left. The one that’s never here. The one they don’t know.

You will have broken her heart. She will be the only one who realises that the day you left, you suicided our family. You ripped our circle opened without our consent. You forced us to become a family of four – a square with isolated corners when we were used to a balanced circle.

You’ll think about her before she was ours, as a child, growing. You’ll think it unfair how she will have gotten to watch carefully over you growing and maturing but you’ll only ever know her as our mother. You’ll never know her when she was wandering through youth’s maze, confused and pursuing chimeras – before she was yours.

You’ll have friends getting married and regret you’ll never get to know her before him – just a girl. And him before her – just a boy.

You’ll have friends becoming parents and you’ll regret that you will never get to know them before they had to sacrifice their liberty, body, money to centre their lives on nappies, lack of sleep and the constant fear that something might happen to us. Before they had to deal with schools, schedules, homework, negotiations on parties, ugly clothes and silly video games. Before they suddenly get dumped after all that. “I’m moving away”. “I don’t want to talk to you.” “You’re nothing but an old conservative arsehole.” Before they realise that cooking for us, doing our laundry, giving us their time, holidays, evenings, and weekends – was all for free. The lice picking, flu curing, birth giving, patience, wisdom imparting, careful word-choosing and constant loving, was all for free.

You’ll think about me, and wish I wasn’t your twin so that I wouldn’t have known you so well. You’ll wish there weren’t four people on this planet who knew how evil and vile you could be.

You’ll also realise the values you were raised up around and that thanks to them, you value intelligence, knowledge and humbleness. You’ll realise they taught you to love to learn, to love asking questions, to respect nature’s beauties. You’ll realise that even though you’ve deepened these values further than we have – beyond us – that’s okay. Because you’ll understand that you were loved, understand that you were raised by two people in love and know that it might keep you from ever finding someone to share your life with. Such love makes one demanding, makes the shoes very big to fill.

You’ll miss us.

You’ll get vertigo when you remember all that we expected of you and that you weren’t. When you think of the way I put you on a pedestal or the way Doodoo waited for you – that big absence becoming a presence representing everything I won’t be. You’ll be my foil, the Romeo to my Mercutio. She’ll love the idea of you, ready to jump back into her life if it were ever to crumble. But it won’t. After searching for people to share herself with – the way we had our we – she’ll realise she doesn’t need it. She will be more independent than you or me will ever be, wandering through the mud of her own untrodden paths. She will be our sister. Our solid no- man’s-land. Our Switzerland. Part of the pack.

At a party, “Do you have siblings?” You’ll blink. Think for a second. “Am I still a brother?” And just like that, you’ll be back, your revolution around the world and yourself complete.

They’ll rent an old mansion a few kilometres from Sevilla for your return. A grey zone between your world and ours. She’ll be a mess. He’ll be sceptical. Silent but nervous. Ecstatic but angry. Like it isn’t real, it can’t be that simple, you weren’t just a flight away—or you would’ve come back before. He’ll feel uneasy at the thought of meeting you, his son, for the second time. He’ll go for a walk in Sevilla, try to remember how it felt to be a dad for you. He’ll be caught in a double helix of hope and fear that will carry him away in a thought bubble towards what ifs.

I’ll be numb. Why didn’t you tell me first? I’ll feel like it’s not fair that you get to slip back into our circle like you never left. I’ll picture your face the last time I saw it. Remember the last time we felt brothers, when we were still afraid of rejection in flirtatious enterprises, of the taste of those first lips, belonging to girls on the verge of blossoming into women. A time where liberty felt wide and long, a line stretching from here on out to infinity.

I’ll think of that picture where we still look alike, same height, still brothers, buried in a pile of leaves, intertwined in a tangled mess of fabric and limbs. I’ll think of those birthdays where we blew our candles side by side, in one single breath, almost Siamese twins. I’ll wonder if you still pinch your elbow when you’re nervous—if I still know you.

You’ll arrive alone from the airport, feel nervous under the weight of you versus us. You’ll feel your heart beating, ready to burst out of your chest the way you felt in childhood when we tiptoed together to their room through seas of potential monsters looming in the dark to sleep with them. I was never able to let you alone with them, yet you’re the one who fled. You’ll be visited by that thing which will have replaced you in our family: the waiting. Waiting for a sign or word without being able to do anything, passive, in the back-seat of a moving vehicle that it’s too late to get off of.

I’ll be the first to see you. You won’t notice. I’ll be behind that kitchen window; the shutters pulled. You’ll walk slowly up the alley, hesitate for a second in front of the house and pinch your elbow. The knot in my stomach will feel lighter. You’ll be older, look ragged and used. You’ll be bearded with dark circles under your eyes. Your skin will be tanner than I’ve ever seen it. I won’t recognise you. You’ll look like the provocative and teasing light of winter mornings – ephemeral and about to disappear. I won’t look at you for too long and resume cleaning the dishes, focusing on the round crowns of lilac painted by hand on the white ceramic plates. I’ll hear her scream of shock, see him discreetly cry, turning to hide from us. Doodoo will grow unusually silent at the sight of you, a stranger where she pictured a brother.

You’ll seem too real, too here.

They’ll be happy though too stunned to express it. They’ll be sad as they look into your eyes and see foreign lands and faces, people and times they’ll never get to share with you.

We’ll all go out to meet you in the alley together. It will seem silly, this dramatic way we’ll stand in a line facing you, letting you study us, feeling more vulnerable than we’ve ever felt. We’ll make you feel like Gulliver stepping into a world of miniatures. We’ll fear you could walk away and vanish. We’ll make you feel like the space between you and us is infinite, empty enough for anything to rush in and destroy this fragile moment of silence where we’ll let the unsaid speak.

You’ll break this frozen picture and make your way across the alley to me. You’ll take me in your arms, feel lankier, stronger and muscular. I’ll feel like half of a whole. Feel that happy melancholy that only we know the secret of, reunited but grieving a brotherless version of ourselves we weren’t quite ready to abandon.

It will take time for things to feel natural. You’ll feel like an imposter playing a role you never auditioned for. The last piece of an Ikea kit that doesn’t fit anywhere, abandoned in the junk- bowl.

Doodoo will quickly fall in love with you again. She’ll love the sameness of your laugh and your bad temper. She’ll love the unknown of you in which she’ll want to curl up and latch herself to be safe from a world that keeps spinning. He will love you still, but find a new way to love you through Doodoo. It will be immediate, nonsensical. Like Tuesday after Monday.

You will tell us of your travels, talk simply of the green and the greys, the deserts of salt and the Incas’ temples. She’ll feel happiness, neither expressive, nor joyful. The way happiness is. She’ll find it difficult, but her memory will reach into her dictionary of mimics, words, sounds, gestures and poetics and she’ll decipher you out. She’ll be intimidated by this love of intolerable purity and strength that all the catastrophe of evil couldn’t undo, where cruelty and beauty cohabit.

At the beginning, I’ll stay invisible, gazing with morbid curiosity; distanced and cynical. I’ll see your difficulty to adapt back to our life. But quickly, I too will be contaminated by our hazardous fraternity.

At the airport after the trip, we’ll weep in a moment of happy melancholy. The joy of being together, the relief of knowing that tenderness and memories don’t drown in distance and time. The unfaltering reality and fatefulness of our goodbyes. That night, as I’ll lie down, a wet feeling of safety will flow through me. The one I felt sitting at the edge of swimming pool slides, ready to push off and slide into the darkness, accept the inevitability of my downfall, reach the circle of bluish light at the end of the tunnel and reunite with the water’s warm embrace where you were waiting for me.

We’ll finally understand that we’re brothers. We’ll realise how many times the certainty that we were part of an indestructible we saved us. Life will cast us in opposing teams, black versus white, the way life works. But it won’t matter. Because we’ll know now that our brotherhood is a closed and circular orbit on which we each gravitate at different speeds so that whatever happens, once in a while, years or decades, we’re bound to find our way back to each other.

But for now, we’re still safely sleeping next to each other in her big round belly, on the dawn of life as two. He’s playing the piano nearby. We’ll know this tune by heart. He’ll play it every night as we fall asleep. But for now, we don’t know the tune yet.

We don’t know of any of this.

Marie-Soizic Fraboulet is a student at Sciences Po in the master’s degree in cultural public affairs, but it is literature and art that have always fascinated her. With her thoughts split between English and French, she navigates her short fictions by taking inspiration from the complexity of the human condition, from those parallel and perpendicular lives that cross its path. She is inspired by error, doubt, love and all the flaws of life in which human beauty infiltrates, as discreet as it is powerful.

“Happy Melancholy” was chosen as the English-speaking winner of Concours d’écriture de Sciences Po.

Image by ilian Kovandzhiev from Pixabay

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