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CBC Short Story Prize: "L'Étranger" by Eliza Robertson

A potential illness brings about an unexpected moment of intimacy between a young woman and her disaffected roommate in Eliza Robertson's "L'Étranger," 
shortlisted for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize


After my Masters degree in England, I moved to Marseille to let my hair grow. I lived with a Ukrainian woman in an apartment with stick-on floor tiles that peeled from the corners of the walls. I tried to not look at the corners too closely. Or the walls themselves, which were tacked with ribbed, oily paper. The apartment was ground-level: when it rained, slugs slinked under the gap in the door. These weren’t banana slugs from B.C., but slimmer and nut-orange. Their trails shone in the glow of my cellphone when I walked to the bathroom at night. 

Every week, Irina boiled potatoes on monday, wednesday and friday. She peeled them into the sink and left the skins in the drain. I had to scrape them to the side of the basin before I could rinse my lunch plate. Because I washed my hair on the same days, I started to see the potatoes as her detachable body parts. The milky lobes like heels she unscrewed from her feet in order to blanche them. 

*

She had, let’s say, certain ticks. She hid dish detergent in the cupboard, though I bought a bottle when I moved in. She kept her own forks and spoons in a coffee can, and her own sponge. Most days, we did not speak. She knew English— I heard her on the phone with her boyfriend. But she avoided the common rooms. When she accidentally entered the kitchen while I cooked, she walked around me to the kettle, then circled out again. Once, I ate my couscous at the breakfast bar as long as I could. I read the newspaper. I tried the French crossword. When I left, her bedroom door opened as soon as I tugged mine shut.

*

One day I sliced eggplant for stir-fry. I had walked home from the market as it started to pour. The clouds blocked the sun like the pelt of a lint trap, and in the kitchen, horizontal rain smacked the window glass. Irina opened the front door with her hair translucent and slick to her cheeks. She walked past the kitchen and switched off the light, then continued into her room. I paused. I could not see well enough to guide the knife. I walked and flicked the light back on, then returned to my cutting board. I sliced eggplant. I would fry it with the garlic and cèpe mushrooms I found at the market. Irina entered the kitchen with her hair in a towel. She turned off the light. She opened the fridge and removed a pot of yogurt and set it on the counter with a spoon from her coffee can. She left the kitchen. I flicked on the light. She returned in a bathrobe. She sighed and turned off the light and switched on the kettle. I sliced my eggplant in the dark until the kettle boiled and she poured her tea and left with her yogurt. 

*

I do not know how the slugs got into the sink. I visited Marrakech for two weeks, and when I came home, the gastropods had harvested. I could not distinguish them from the peels: the skins plump and waterlogged, mired in gelatinous slime. The slugs narrow and orange like yam fries. Pan grease beaded the water that had not drained, and threads of chicken. A hard shell plugged the centre of the basin. It was a snail or a peach pit. 
I surveyed her cupboard. My eyes shifted from her spoon can to her sponge to her dish detergent to her chestnut spread. I considered what to do. First, the sink: I emptied her utensils and scraped the slugs into the coffee can. Then, I opened her chestnut spread. I pinched a slug with metal tongs and released it into the jar. When the body uncurled, I pressed it to the bottom with a teaspoon. I added a second slug. I smoothed the paste over their eyespots. 

*

When she came home, I heard her set grocery bags on the counter. Then I heard nothing. Then the hooks of the shower curtain clinked across the rod. I listened again when her shower ended. She returned to the kitchen and started the kettle. I stood at my wall and tried to determine the weight of items she set down, but the kettle chortled too loudly. I could not hear. When my door tapped, I jumped. 

I waited until my pulse had calmed, then opened the door. She stood in her bathrobe and bare-feet. Pimples lit over her forehead where she had removed her makeup. Normally her skin was smooth as wax. 

“Can I come in?”
Her fist trembled where she clenched her robe. I opened the door wider and she stepped inside. She sat on my computer chair. I did not know what to do. The sash of her robe dragged on the floor and I lifted it for her, but she did not see. It dangled off my palm like a braid of hair. 

“Are you okay?” I asked. 

She gazed at my computer screen, though the monitor had blacked. 

“I think I found a lump.”

“What?”

“On my breast.”

I stared at her. 

“Can you look?”

She stood. She opened her bathrobe. I did not look down. 

“There,” she said, without pointing. 

I lowered my eyes, but did not know what to look for. Her breasts were larger than mine. That is all I saw. Two large breasts. 

“Which one?” I asked. 

She nodded to her right breast. I could not see a lump. 

“I don’t see anything,” I said. 

“Touch it.”

“Touch it?”

“Underneath.”

She gathered her hair to one shoulder, though it only fell to her collarbone and was not long enough to block my view. I leaned in and touched her breast with two fingers. I pressed gently. I could feel how cold my hands were. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how a lump feels.”

“Lumpy,” she said. She stared hard out the window like she might cry.  
I continued to probe her breast, then felt it under her skin. The lump was small but firm, wimpled like the shell of a walnut. I lowered my hand. 

“You feel it,” she said. 

“I’m really not an expert.”

“But you feel it.”

I nodded. She nodded too. She kept her robe untied and left the room. 

*

In the morning, I purchased two pains au chocolat while I waited for Carrefour to open. When it did, I bought more chestnut spread. At home I spooned the new spread into a bowl until the level matched the slug jar. I tossed the slug jar. I licked the new paste from the bowl with my index finger. Irina emerged after half an hour. She walked into the kitchen and turned on the kettle. 
“Hi,” I said. 

She flinched and dropped her teabag. 

“Sorry.”

She bent to blow off her teabag, then tossed it in the trash. 

“Pain au chocolat?” I slid the plate toward her on the table.

“No thank you.” 

She retrieved another bag from her box. I paused with my hand at the end of the table. After a moment, I drew the plate back. 

“I can’t eat gluten,” she said. 

“Oh.”

I tugged the plate closer to me. I felt nauseous from the chestnut spread, but did not want her to think I bought the croissants for her alone. I tore a leaf off the pastry and nibbled.

“Listen,” I said. “If you want someone to come to the Doctor’s…”

She looked startled again, as if she forgot I knew. 

“No thank you.” She opened the fridge and pulled items off her shelf onto the counter. 

“Are you sure?” I said. “I wouldn’t mind.”

“Would you like my crème fraîche?” she said.

“What?”

“It’s nice with soup.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

She set the container on the table, next to my plate.

“I fly home today.”

“You’re flying home?”

“Olives?” she said.

“Thank you. Why are you flying home?”

“I am sick.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

She shook her head. 

“You should see a doctor before you fly home.”

“I see a doctor at home,” she said. “Plums?”

“Okay.”

“Chestnut spread?”

“Ha—”

“It’s nice with baguette,” she said. 

*

She left me all her food. She set each item on the table while I watched, as if otherwise I would not see. After she went, I sat before the mountain and felt I needed to eat everything. Like if I didn’t eat the crème fraîche and plums and chestnut spread then, they would spoil. So I did. I ate until I could not eat, and then I sat on the stool with lead in my stomach. I wanted to retch, but could not bring myself to try. I stared at the containers, half-full of their creams, and the windows darkened. I did not bother to turn on the lights.  



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