I have always known that it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover.
I myself almost committed the same mistake with this book, though. I did not even check it out when I first saw a copy of it at Fully Booked, thinking its cover was so boring and that it would probably be another so-so read. Good thing, however, my friend A started talking about it. He said he liked the book a lot, and since I have always trusted his taste, I gave it a shot. I read it.
Then, I was surprised. I didn’t expect that such a thin and plain-looking book could remind me of how complex it is to be human. Despite its stories’ shortness and the simplicity of the language used in them, it was able to trigger a lot of emotions and make me realize that, indeed, life sometimes reveals its nature through strange and painful experiences.
“The Swim Team,” for instance, tells the story of a young woman who moves to a town where she meets a group of old people who want to learn how to swim. She is eager to teach them, but she realizes that there is neither a body of water nor a swimming pool in town. Yet, instead of simply abandoning the idea and letting them die without realizing their dreams, she teaches them how to swim—in her apartment unit. On the floor, they make movements as though they were swimming in the water and practice proper breathing by soaking their faces in a bowl of water. They refer to her as “Captain” and they act as if they were a real swim team.
“Mon Plaisir,” on the other hand, centers on a couple whose relationship is falling apart. It doesn’t simply tell; it also shows. Instead of telling the readers that the characters are separating, it implies through the use of their actions and dialogues. Yet, they try to stay together, at least physically. They still live in the same house although, based on the narrative itself, they already find it hard to relate to each other. While there are attempts to salvage the relationship, some sense of awkwardness can be sensed in each of their encounters.
The end of their relationship is just so painful, especially when juxtaposed with how they are with each other as background actors in a movie. At some point in the story, they respond to a casting call and become extras in a film called Hello Maximillion, Goodbye Maximillion. During the shoot, they are asked to just talk to each other (silently, not to steal the spotlight from the main actors) in a French restaurant called Mon Plaisir. Throughout the scene, the two of them seem to have recovered the intimacy they used to have.
On action, I squeezed Carl’s finger and he gripped mine. The urgency seemed obvious now, we both leaned forward and I held his bearded chin as we kissed quickly, not wanting to distract from the lead table. The feeling between us was mournful and desperate. We could not look away from each other, every inhalation was a question: Yes? Followed by: Yes. Falling and catching and falling and catching, we descended into a precarious and vivid place; I had always known it was there but had never guessed where. Carl’s new sense of humor flourished in silence, he made subtly absurd gestures that surprised me into almost audible laughter. And I could not make a move without making love. Every time I shifted in my chair, lifted my fork, brushed my hair from my eyes, I seemed to be pushing through the motions as through honey, slowly and with all kinds of implications. I feared our breath was too loud. I seized his forearms, he took off his shoes, beneath the table, our feet pushed with an almost vocal eloquence.
Yes, they are more okay when they are just acting — in silence — than in real life. In fact, the awkwardness and coldness come back as soon as real-life resumes, allowing them to finally realize that it has to stop. They should separate.
How could it be over? Carl and I looked at each other with disbelief. The crew began to clap, everyone clapped; we could only rise from our table and stumble out of the room with the twenty-two other diners. We didn’t look at each other when we parted toward different dressing rooms. The drive home was long and sealed in a drowning silence. Walking across the front lawn, Carl stopped to re-coil the hose that I had left out the day before. I waited for him for a moment and then felt silly standing there and went inside. It was late, so I started making dinner. Only once we sat down did it strike me as bizarre. Here we were again, eating together in silence. I pressed my fork into the greens and began to cry. Carl looked up, we stared across the table at each other. It was plain between us: we should not be together any longer. And cut.
It broke my heart, really. And it still does.
I can tell that July’s brilliance has become more apparent with this story, particularly how it is laid out. “Mon Plaisir” is neither noisy nor explosive; its characters do not need to yell at each other to let its readers figure out what their relationship has become. These characters only need to show what they no longer are through a situation that’s a bit odd.
These are just two out of the 16 stories in the collection. Grab a copy of the book and find out how it can break your heart, too. Don’t worry, though, with every heartbreak that you will have through this book, you are sure to learn or realize something. Maybe it can change your life as well. Who knows?