Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the October 2004 issue

The Way You Might Break a Finger

I am alive. Alive. My fingers look like nine little soldiers doing their drill in front of the window. In the building across the street a dustcloth waves at me. The hand doing the dusting is invisible. Only the dancing dustcloth. If I turn my back to it, I see an empty room. The wooden floor creaks and sags. How will I sleep here?

I moved four hours ago. Or maybe five? The first thing I did when I came into the room was to line up my cosmetics on the floor. The bright bottles gave color to the brown walls. One has to be contemplating suicide to paint a room brown. Now it looks a bit better. As if the room were an unpowdered woman without earrings who needs accessories to bring out her beauty.

Of course this is a daring comparison for a room that is twelve square meters with a kitchenette and a shared bathroom down the hallway. But my pretty bottles, the powder brush with its white ivory handle, and the makeup bag depicting field scenes, take on the role that candlesticks and curtains would play in a normal apartment. My cosmetics are my furnishings.

I set them up decoratively in a row and stare at them. They have all the colors of the rainbow. Right above them the rainbow continues. The dampness has painted a multicolored island on the wall. Do people ever unpack their belongings in order of importance? If so, why didn't I take my violin out of its case?

I spent the whole morning listening to the sound of footsteps under the window on the rue Saint-André-des-Arts. I sat motionless on the mattress like a yogi and wondered how this room could be made human. I also wondered how a person can live in a twelve-square-meter space without ending up frightened of herself. My mind is racing with questions. Like how I will go to the toilet in the middle of the night, or if I will find a masked man with a knife waiting behind the sink.

I've left the worst behind me. I feel empty and strong. The way you feel when you start from the beginning. I opened and closed the small refrigerator, and turned on the tap to see how the water flowed. Then I plugged in my radio, and a prophetic French song was heard: "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus." I twirled the dial, but love songs were everywhere. As was to be expected. It is February 14. A difficult day for those who have broken up.

But for those who have broken up, every day is difficult. If you want to feel unhappy, you can cling to a sad song or a broken streetlight. It's the easiest thing to cry because the oil is spattering out of the pan and singeing you. But in such cases you always cry for two reasons: because of the burning oil and because of the burning truth.

I am crying now because it is raining, and by some strange, metaphysical coincidence Tina Turner's "I Can't Stand the Rain" is playing. I cry sweetly and quietly, as if I know that the sadness will end. As if I am taking pleasure in it. If there were a camera on the ceiling it would show the mattress, my head from the top, without the tears or my feet being visible. Like the top of a needle, waiting for a thread so it can feel useful. Finally the camera would come to a halt in front of the window, at my row of bottles, and the image would fade together with the sound of the rain.

I moved with the first light of the sun. My luggage fit in the taxi. Three suitcases, a collapsible plastic wardrobe, a bedside table, a violin, a radio, and a paper bag from the grocery store. The taxi driver opened the door with a chivalrous sweep. Then he deposited my household on the sidewalk. The radio on the nightstand, beside it the wardrobe, and beside that the suitcases and the paper bag, and finally the violin. There I was in the street with my belongings. I sat on the edge of my nightstand to think through my new life. If anyone were to pass at that moment, they would learn a lot about me. Not the basics-that my name is Daphne and that I am twenty-three-but that I am now living alone with a few objects and many fears.

The fears, of course, don't show when you're sitting in the middle of the street with a lost look on your face. But the moment you unlock the door and line up the cosmetics on the floor, the moment you empty your suitcases and see them gaping like frightened mouths, the moment you turn on the radio and happen to hear a sad song, the fears come alive.

I can't say what it is exactly that I'm afraid of. That's why my fear is scattered all around, it goes out the window and reaches the Fontaine St. Michel. My fear takes the Métro to Villette, my old neighborhood, reaches the Conservatoire, and enters the Organ Hall. There I took my exams for the Prix. I played Sibelius's Violin Concerto and tripped up on the tenths. I flunked for the second year in a row.

There are a few hypothetical questions that torment me, and that I simply haven't been able to answer. For instance: If I had managed to get the Prix, would I now be playing Rachmaninoff's "Elegy" with Isabel and Raoul? Would I be giving concerts in Africa like Emmaniel, and writing postcards to Petros and Lia from the swimming pool of the hotel? Would I still be with Tristan? Answer me, sweet walls, answer me! Would I still be with Tristan? If so, then let me hear a howl right now out in the street.

How I am tormented by the ten lives I could have lived if I had woken up earlier on a certain morning. If, for instance, Isabel didn't have her birthday in November. Or if she had it in November but didn't celebrate it. Or if she had celebrated it on a Tuesday or a Thursday instead of on a Wednesday, when Tristan is always away in Bordeaux. Or if she had been celebrating it on that day and a terrible headache had made me go home early. Before Goldfinger ambushed me. He had slipped into the small doorway near the entrance, into that black hole that always frightened me. Raoul had taken me home in his car, and, knowing how frightened I was, revved his engine to show me he was still there, that I wasn't alone. Goldfinger lunged out of his hiding place the moment the elevator came down to the lobby. With one hand he grabbed me from behind. In the other he was holding his knife. A Japanese knife, according to the police, double-edged. By the time I said "Raoul," he had cut off the index finger of my right hand.

They're still looking for Goldfinger. In the last six months he has cut off seventeen musicians' index fingers. Three a month. He seems to lie in wait outside the Conservatoire, watching the victims he will attack late at night. Methodically. The students say he is the ghost of the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost a hand in World War I and has come back to seek vengeance. I don't believe in ghosts. Goldfinger is a pervert who collects fingers to string into a necklace. Or a musician without talent who flunked the Prix three times and had to leave the Conservatoire. I wonder what he does with our fingers. I imagine them all together in the drawer of a nightstand. Thin fingers and fat fingers. With gnawed nails and hangnails. With white specks from calcium deficiency and calluses from violin bows. I see them lying motionlessly in a row in the dark. The fingers that caressed, or picked a nose, or pointed at the moon, are now dead and decaying.

In the Métro I watch people with ten fingers. They cross them, or drum them on a briefcase as if they were playing music. An index finger will run along a line in a book. Or people will tear their ticket into small pieces and throw them at invisible pigeons, crumb by crumb. The black women with the strange bird nests in their hair twirl their fingers in their necklaces. And lovers significantly touch the soft skin between their fingers. When the Métro is thundering through the tunnels beneath Paris, and people's voices cannot be heard as they describe their troubles or tell jokes, their fingers weave a fantastic spider web. The fingers narrate a whole tale. I only know nine-tenths of that tale.

I've met another girl with nine fingers. Her name is Sybilla and she fled Bosnia to escape the bombs. We met in December on the bridge in front of the main entrance. She was coming, I was going, and the moment we crossed paths large raindrops began to fall. I saw her hand wrapped in gauze. Number ten, I thought. I had been number nine.

Sybilla had taken it very badly. She's young. Sixteen. A piano prodigy. I had heard her play once at Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile and had been envious of her playing. Another time, she had given a recital to promote the friendship of Balkan peoples. Her eyes had been fixed to the ceiling as she played the Études of Chopin as if they were Mozart minuets. Now she is steeped in depression. When I sometimes see her at the Horloge holding her cup with her four fingers, I sit down next to her and tell her stories: that Ravel and Scriabin had written entire concertos for the left hand, that Schumann had turned to composing because of his hand.

"I will never again play Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto," she tells me plaintively. "For that you need eleven fingers, not ten."

"If you had stayed in Bosnia they might have chopped off all your fingers by now," I tell her.

This somehow calms her down. We both look out the window of the café, at the passersby holding their bags tight with ten fingers. I admit that I am trembling inside.

Deep down Sybilla is right to be angry. She thought she could map out her life, but she was wrong. Nobody can really map out their lives. Take my life, for instance: the only thing the daughter of a violinist can do is play better violin than her father. I'd study for hours, I'd never go to bars with their sacrilegious music, nor did I have friends. Only my violin. Even in Paris I was alone. Nobody approached me, because it seems that loneliness was stamped on my forehead. Until I met Tristan at the Horloge. He was sitting next to the billiard table with Emmaniel and Raoul, playing Jewish music. First our violins fell in love, then we did. We practiced together in his room, which he had insulated with egg cartons. When we finished, we shouted out loud to vent our tension, and nobody could hear us. "Imagine how many hens, how many eggs went into the kind of insulation we have," he would say, throwing me onto the bed. Last spring we finally decided to move in together. Now I could study properly for the Prix without neighbors banging on the walls. April passed quickly, May passed breathlessly. One day I was sitting in a hamburger joint chewing my plastic potatoes-I would slice them into slivers with my teeth and then squash them on my palate like mosquitoes. A guy and a girl were sitting next to me, speaking Greek. He was saying that hamburgers were like whores. You didn't care where you stuck your dick, but afterward you were disgusted with yourself. From the expression of disgust on my face, they guessed my nationality. That's how I got to know Petros and Lia, the two black sheep of the Conservatoire, who played rock music. They offered to buy me a crêpe to make amends. I accepted. Oh, how I'd love a crêpe right now. Hunger has tied my stomach into a knot. I rummage through my paper bag. A can of tomatoes, biscotti, and frozen spinach puree-defrosted spinach puree, so many hours out of the freezer. I open the bag. Instead of spinach, I find green pellets. I hope they will melt in the pot, so I won't end up eating spinach in pill form, like an astronaut. I take a frying pan covered in cobwebs out of the kitchen cabinet. I destroy a spider's nest with a ladle. The spider runs off in terror to find another homeless friend under the plate rack. That's how I ran to find Petros and Lia when Tristan was away in Bordeaux. They took me to a Mano Negra concert and a rave party on the Seine. They introduced me to strange guys with shaved heads and rings in their noses. One day the three of us went on a trip. Tristan was in Bordeaux again, he gave classes at a conservatory there twice a week. Petros took us to Deauville in a white Volvo with red leather seats. The tape deck kept playing songs I didn't know. Unknown music. Petros and Lia told me the artists' names: Cat Stevens, Rolling Stones, the Animals. Depending on the song, my mood changed. I gazed out the window at the poplar trees, and didn't want anyone to talk to me. The music kneaded me. It made me happy or sad, for no reason. Lou Reed sang: "That's what life's like without you. Life's like Sanskrit read to a pony." So this was sacrilegious music?

My father had always said that rock music was easy. That anyone could write rock music, that it didn't elevate the soul. Was he wrong! When Petros, Lia, and I wrote our first song, my soul rose and took its longest journey out of its body. The song was called "Watered Wine," and was about a glass that overflows with tears. "Drink this," our song goes, "and you will remember the first day of the first summer of your life."

I had reached my decision with ten fingers. But some nights, when Tristan turned his back to me, I asked myself: "Even if you left the Conservatoire because of Goldfinger, why did you leave classical music? Why? Go on, tell me, why?" I left classical music shortly before my Prix examination on June 3. It was the first time I played with Petros and Lia. Their apartment was near the Conservatoire. I had taken to dropping by for coffee during my breaks, and would leaf through their electric guitar magazines. That day, Petros was sitting at the kitchen table, playing his guitar so softly that you'd think the strings were invisible. Lia sang as she strained the pasta. I saw that music filled their lives. While for Tristan and me, music meant practicing in front of our music stands, and obedience to the notes. I decided to break the discipline of so many years, the way you might break a finger. I took my violin out of its case and followed Lia's voice. I only followed it at first, for soon enough my bow was attacking every corner of the ceiling. Something had shifted within me.

"Bravo, Grateli!" Petros yelled, clapping and shouting like a maniac.

From that afternoon on, I began my covert training. I'd meet Petros and Lia when Tristan was away. We would write lyrics, compose music, and drink wine from small ouzo glasses. But parallel lives cannot remain parallel for long, unless you are schizophrenic. Tristan and I began to disagree on matters of interpretation. He kept snapping at me: "Don't wiggle around like that! There's no harmony in your sound!"

"I'm not a statue, Tristan. I'm a human being!"

After I failed the Prix, Tristan became even sterner. He had passed with a first, and felt that I had somehow brought shame upon our house. He began putting me down in front of Raoul and Emmaniel. "Daphne has lost her balance," he would say. "I'm serious. She can't control her body or her mind."

The evening he returned from Bordeaux and found me in the hospital with nine fingers, he forgot my low grades. For three days he caressed me and lulled me to sleep, as if I were an injured sparrow. The moment my wound healed, he began his nasty comments again.

My intention had been to inform him diplomatically of my secret life and the decision I had reached. But I wanted first to assure myself that my voice would not waver. Then one day he caught me red-handed. He came back early from Bordeaux. I didn't hear his key or his footsteps. I was playing "Storm in My Glass." I had come to my solo part. "Are you crazy!" he yelled, his eyes narrowing. As if he had caught me in bed with another man.

With my spoon I sketch his eyes on the steaming puree. I eat his eyes one by one, and feel a solace in my stomach. I swallow fast, while the puree is hot, so that I won't taste it. I could be eating tears, or bouillon cubes, or boiled bay leaves. I could be eating my violin.

But no. My violin is next to me. It sits there, discreet and silent. It isn't to blame. Nor am I. But as the news began to spread, they all saw me as a criminal. "Daphne plays rock music! Crucify her!" Tristan felt that I was cheating on him, as if my music was a broad-shouldered man on whose arm I left the Conservatoire every evening. He stared at the mark left by the tailpiece on my neck, as if he was convinced that the bruise was the love bite of a rival. He saw me as an active volcano, and was frightened of the lava that might pour forth.

I tried many times to explain. I read him the lyrics of "Watered Wine." I told him that I didn't know how or why, but that something had shifted within me forever.

"Forever?" he had asked. "It might just be a passing thing."

"I'm not sick, Tristan. I've just changed. People do change."

But it seems that people come in two categories: those who change, and those who view change with terror. Tristan told me to go find myself another place, as I no longer needed his egg cartons.

And so I did. My new place is small and dirty, has spider nests in its corners, and a bathroom down the hallway. I'll have to get up and dress in the middle of the night just for a quick pee. I know the rest: I will lie awake, staring the ceiling till daybreak. I will hear the floor creak and think that it is Goldfinger. Since that night, I haven't slept on my own. In the morning I comfort Sybilla, at night I have nightmares. Goldfinger approaches me. He has a violin for a head. He bends forward, the strings turn into a knife. I wake up drenched in sweat and stare at my hand for hours. The wound has healed, and a small hunchbacked effigy of a finger has sprouted. A pink caterpillar.

Ever since I was a little girl I was afraid that something bad would happen to me. Like I'd be hit by a car. Every evening I would run home. I mistook tree branches for flashers and shadows for rapists. I imagined someone would cover my mouth as I came out of the Métro and plunge a switchblade into my stomach. There's no point worrying in advance. Goldfinger taught me that.

If he were here right now, I'd give him a little wine to relax. I'd ask him why he cuts off people's fingers. Especially those of musicians who cannot live without fingers. I would tell him that my bow has become heavier, unliftable. Then I would cut off all his fingers, one by one, with my kitchen knife.

It's all nonsense. I would never manage to cut off somebody's finger. Or harm a person. With my mind, I can commit the worst crimes. But not with my hands. I'd like to push Tristan off the Montparnasse Tower and watch him fall slowly, like a lifeless doll. But the day before yesterday, when I bumped into him at the Horloge, I kissed him four times on the cheeks, like a perfect Frenchwoman.

Petros says we should leave Paris for a while. We should go to Annecy, to see a strange building that is in the lake and looks like a whale. Lia caresses my hair and insists we should call our band Nine Fingers. She probably thinks that the pain is centered there, though in reality it has set up shop forever in my stomach. It's because of the pain in my stomach that I can't seem to get myself to clean up this pigsty. I lie curled up on the mattress and look at the room sideways. I almost believe that the window is in the floor and that the apartment building across the street is sinking through a trapdoor.

I think I shall sleep. I hear horns honking in the street and feel safe. I am not alone. The people swearing at each other right now beneath my balcony can save me. I spread out my crumpled bedsheet and let the music play. Leonard Cohen lulls me to sleep: "All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky, the holy books are open wide, the doctors working day and night, but they'll never ever find that cure for love." He makes you believe that this is the only truth. Until the song ends. Then the next song is the only truth, and then the next. That's what I want to do, too. To write songs that will give people hope. It doesn't matter if their lives get in the way and they forget. For a little while, even if only for a little while, they will listen carefully and not care how many fingers they have. How many worries. Whether they are clever or alone. Through the eye of their needle a thread will pass that will sew shut all their fears.

Read more from the October 2004 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.