The venerable institution, rising level by level in greeting with his approach, is easily entered at this hour; six minutes classes begin, all life forms are at their respective stations and there is little chance of encountering loiterers who would not readily seal their lips in exchange for silence concerning their own secret truancy. Even in the case of an official passerby, one need only lower the head, flick a collar up high over any idiosyncratic features, and appear immersed in the perusal of the sheaf of letterhead in one's hand. The letterhead may say anything--le regard singulier d'une femme galante, a recipe for rugelach, one may even discover a long-hidden skill at haiku composition during these moments. All that is vital is that it be letterhead, boldly delineating across its borders the crest of the much-lauded institution.
To further ensure his security, Gilles takes the stairs to the third floor, thereby avoiding the elevator for special people. He follows the path of his faded footsteps to room 302. When he lifts his head, a shaft of sunlight rapt with thirty-three faces upturned faces tilts toward him. If he dies at this moment it will be like dying in the bed of one's childhood, so nostalgic is the moment for itself: a fragrance of erasers and wood wax and buttered lunches, bubblegum snaps, squeaking desk lids, a ball's slap against pavement somewhere else. Faces distinguish themselves in the light: Céline-Marie, dressed in what one could properly describe only as a frock, Vanessa, Délphine, Audrey, Louise then Hugo, lids already on the descent over hound dog eyes, Christophe, Renaud, Kiki, and then the row beginning with Simone, sitting calmly, hair in a precocious chignon, and the forever enchanting fourth row beyond which Gilles still casts not even a glance, and on the edge of which his eyes rest lovingly and fearlessly upon the protruding leg of a wide-eyed Pascal, who now grips with both hands the sides of his desk as if to save himself or it from the imminent fall.
--I am sorry, says Gilles, smiling broadly, --I am late.
--But-- says Louise, loath to carrying things through to completion; she will one day be the sort of woman who fails to finish a novel, leaving men cursing, doubled over in cinema exits.
--Yes, Louise, and everybody, he says, plunking his briefcase down and raising his arms. --I am back. After a brief hiatus. It was all a silly mistake after all.
--Where is Monsieur Gide? demands Henri, son of the xenophobe, seated beside Pascal.
--Oh, it is a shame, a terrible shame, says Gilles, shaking his head as he rummages through the briefcase.
--You dismembered him and hid his body in the trunk of a car, Simone offers.
--A German car, elucidates Henri.
--The house of Monsieur Gide, says Gilles, --is on fire.
--Did he--? Louise cries, blinking rapidly.
--Did he what? says Gilles, playfully.
--Perish, says Simone. --Terminate, pass away, cease, decease. You know. Bite the dust.
--Well, says Gilles, unpacking his pencils. He sharpens them one by one, twelve whirrings in the electric contraption by the overhead projector. This takes a minute. --He was, happily, away all weekend. In Basel, strolling. So you see, everything is quite all right.
--When is he coming back?-- Henri, who like his father fears change above all else, wants to know.
--Basel, says Gilles, slowly, --does strange things to a man's judgement.
His eyes are averted by a swift movement toward the door.
--Where are you going, Pascal? We are just beginning.
His voice is surprisingly even; Pascal stands very still.
--Pascal, Gilles says. --I love you tenderly and utterly. But you are a boy who will come to nothing. I was rather shy about divulging this to you before, you seemed so frail I could not be sure upon which cards you were balanced and how dare anyone topple the structures of another's existence? I had this power-- I realize that now. But I will not use it. We may love each other like small lights that seem to vanish from each other but have simply shifted direction or discovered a darker embrace. So I ask you now where you are going: Where are you going, Pascal, when we are at last on the verge of beginning?
--Toilet, mumbles Pascal, tipping over into the corridor.
There is a silence during which Gilles paces, perusing their faces like well-loved books. Céline sits, twisting her rings.
--And how are you, Céline? he asks, stopping before her.
She stares down at her hands. Her lower lip is swollen in strawberry pink bites.
--My mother told me not to talk to you, she blurts out, curls springing. --She said you were never right in the head.
--Twisted, nods Simone, her hands folded upon her desk. Gilles is grateful for her support though her word choice, he feels, is perhaps a bit harsh to describe a child's condition.
--Misunderstood, he suggests.
--Ever since your mother-- Louise explains.
--My mother, says Gilles, steadied joyfully by the image of a singular milk carton on a panel of wood, --is dead like yours too will be one day, but it is not something to fret over, mes enfants. This is what we will talk about today; the quizzes can wait. Let us now be mathematical adventurers and travel those planes where our wildest, most real thoughts lead us. RISE, HUGO, AND GREET THE DAY OF YOUR NEW BEGINNING! Do not cry Céline, you appear pampered and slow to learn.
--I have come to tell you one thing, just one thing, it came to me as a boy in a patch of gold in a moment when I did not know whether I was dead or alive. But that is a mere technical matter, like the difference between imaginary and real numbers; real is really only less imaginary. The world is as Plato tells us--mathematics is our link between this real and this imagined, and numbers are angels, indicating to us a world we can never fully know, digestible proof of utter entropy. One must learn to live this truth as quickly as possible. Vite, vite. One must pass Céline a handkerchief, how my heart leaps to see her moved like this.
--Two is two of one, three three. There is a unit. It is a force. Things do not exist but versions of things. That is why there are so many gods; that is why there are none. Do you see? I have come to tell you that for a long long time I did not know whether I was dead or living. It is a question I am sure you have asked yourself from time to time. I looked for something to make me real but encountered only walls, painfully thin. And then an angel landed in my courtyard, bright and inexplicable as a planet. At 7:00 hours, with a leather knapsack and two suitcases.
--Did she have wings? Simone lifts an eyebrow.
--She has hair she wears in a French braid, says Gilles. --But she is not French.
The students, reentered in the shaft of light, are mesmerized, some of the less wholehearted exchanging glances. They begin to move now, to tap and tear at things as if after a long sleep.
--My mother is at home, says Céline, splotched with red. --She is with the small twins, arranging flowers. She will be outside the building at four o'clock to pick me up.
--Perhaps, says Gilles.
--I'm telling, says Henri.
--Telling whom what? says Gilles. --Pass Céline a handkerchief.
--I'm going to tell everyone what you said.
--Bless you, says Gilles.
His children; he had never truly lost faith in them. Tiny messengers resplendent with the news, they would meet in the football field in the late afternoon light. Those with knit scarves and clear voices would take the north road, those with eloquent eyes and hands the south. They would spread his word along sandless coasts where men would rise erect with wisdom upon surfboards, and through small cities marked by large cathedrals, far beyond the unlikely and precious point of origin: 111 rue des Dames.
Gilles emerges from his vision to that of the headmaster standing squarely in the doorway. Behind him, picking his cuticles, Pascal leans, staring fixedly at a point on the wall just above and to the right of Gilles's head.
--Good morning, says Gilles. The headmaster's face is a glorious shade of purple. His entire body shudders and his voice is tight, squeezing itself out of a small hole.
--Perhaps you should sit, says Gilles kindly. --You're not looking so well.
--I'm not looking so well? I'm not looking so well! Gilles, do you know where you are!
--I know! shouts Gilles, puzzled by Félix Défossez's newly evident hearing problem. --This is a respectable institution! No! A venerated institution! Respected!
The headmaster raises his arm, stiff, skyward.
--Go, he says. --Go now before I and every official in the quarter make sure that you do.
--I was just leaving, says Gilles, reaching for his briefcase. He feels he confronts a multi-headed organism, the children's faces superimposed over some sort of unity he does not understand. It is disorienting and he is unsure, now, of where he is or what he is doing. There is a thread. He grasps for it like a blind man. A thirsty man.
--I am late, says Gilles, --for a rendez-vous.
--Go, says the headmaster and Pascal looks down, fascinated now by his shoes. --And never come back.
--I do believe, says Gilles, --I need a drink.
Outside his back hits brick and he slides to the ground, hugging his knees to his chest.
--Angela, he tells the sparrow hopping through the pebbles by his feet.
--Angela, he tells himself.