title: The Mystery Guest: An Account [support an independent bookseller and purchase from Strand]
by: Gregoire Bouillier
translated by: Lorin Stein
source: New York Public Library
I have needed this book several times over the past six years without knowing it.
The Mystery Guest is Bouillier’s true account of what happened when the love of his life, who, without any warning, literally walked out on him five years prior, calls him out of the blue and invites him to be the “mystery guest” at a birthday party for an artist he’s never met, where he ends up (unknowingly) participating in an uncomfortably personal piece of performance art.
The first half of the book is dedicated to Bouillier processing what happens when someone he cared for deeply inserts herself back into his life as abruptly as she withdrew years before. Reading his processing was incredibly cathartic for me, as I’ve been the person abruptly dropped several times in my romantic past:
- Six years ago, months into what I considered to be developing into a pretty strong connection, K called on a gorgeous Friday afternoon to end things with me as he ran his errands. I had been napping (I was in my first year of teaching first grade at the time, and by Friday afternoons, I had given all of the energy I had to my little kiddies and desperately needed to recharge) and through the fog of newly abandoned sleep, all I caught was something about dry cleaning, that he felt he could only pursue something serious with me, that he wasn’t in a place to be pursuing anything serious right now, and that he was about to lose the connection as he was getting on the subway. It was an elevated, delicate variation on the “it’s not you, it’s me” theme, and seemed an inaccurate, incomplete picture. The blow took three minutes to deliver and weeks to recover from.
- Five-ish years ago, I had been dating S for several months and had met his friends and his father (which is a story in and of itself! His father makes for epic storytelling, and I mean that in the best possible way…), when he disappeared. Poof! Gone. Two or three weeks went by when I finally got word that he was very busy at work but could spare half an hour to meet me for a drink, during which I basically broke up with myself because he was too exhausted/burnt out/wasn’t present enough/didn’t care to say what needed to be said. I left him in the bar with 25 min left in his 30 minute break. It’s surprisingly easy to end things with yourself when you’re the only one doing any of the talking.
Bouiller and I share many parallel experiences.
Like Bouillier, I like clarity. I’m not good with ambiguity. My mind wanders into a zone of over-analysis that can, at its worst, be crippling and excessively annoying to those I’m closest to. Almost against my conscious will, I replay conversations, moments, interactions over and over again trying to pinpoint the exact moment when something shifted, so I can figure out what exactly I did wrong (so I never do it again!). I vacillate between giving the other person a benefit of the doubt far more generous than any reasonable person would allow, to inditing them as the coldest, most unfeeling man to have ever encountered, and pause everywhere in between, searching for WHY?????. But the gods of circumstance shined on Bouillier, and he receives his answers in the most perfect manner for a writer. On page 93, he writes
“And just when you think you’ve thought of everything…you forget the book sitting right there on the bedside table.”
Without giving too much away, I envy Bouillier in that he finds some sort of explanation in the pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. He gains some (wonderfully artistic and perfectly literary) insight into the ever elusive WHY?????, can take it in and move on. If all human behavior were that simple, and if all answers could be found in the book on the bedside table…
Like Bouillier, I have also been woken from a dead sleep by an unanticipated voice at the other end of the line. His offered a hello, mine a goodbye. Of this moment, he writes:
“I could hear how soft and gummy my voice was, how drowsy-sounding, and without even giving it any thought I realized that she must under no circumstances be allowed to know she’d woken me up. That was crucial, even if it meant sounding cold and detached–and why on earth did she have to call…when I was fast asleep and at my most vulnerable, my least up to answering the phone…In real life, it goes without saying, the ideal situation eludes us, and no doubt that’s a good thing for humanity in general, but just then I’d have done anything to keep her from guessing that she’d caught me sound asleep in the middle of the afternoon.” (page 6).
In my situation with K, the last thing I wanted, when I was about to be cast aside, was to appear at any more of a disadvantage than I already was, and Bouillier’s fear of being perceived as weak completely resonated with me.
Like Bouillier, I’ve had long lost lovers reappear out of nowhere. S asked me to lunch last summer, for no other discernible reason other than that he was in town. K found me on Facebook a few weeks ago and messaged me to find out if I were still teaching. Personally, I prefer the past to stay there, unless there’s a compelling reason that benefits us both for their reappearance. It’s as if they only considered how they would feel talking to me, and gave no thought to the fact that I would experience some sort of emotion having to, in turn, talk to them. They certainly felt some urgency years ago to put distance and silence between us, so why reach out now? And the WHY?????? reappears…WHY??????? I hate the WHY?????
And like Bouillier, I’ve felt compelled to change something about myself when finding myself suddenly by myself. Bouillier goes through a lengthy turtleneck phase post-breakup. Of it, he writes:
“Since I’d always hated turtlenecks worn as undershirts and despised the men who wore them as the lowest kind of pseudo-sportsmen with, as they say, the lamest kind of collar, I started wearing turtlenecks as undershirts the moment she left. Basically, I never took them off. No doubt this was magical thinking on my part (if I never took them off, nothing would ever take off on me); at any rate, these turtleneck undershirts erupted in my life without my noticing until it was too late and I was under their curse. You could even say they’d inflicted themselves on me, so that now I hardly remembered the wind on my neck, which is the very feeling of freedom itself.” (page 18).
I thought a lot about this idea of the “freedom” he was trying to gird himself against, and upon reflection I realized that several of my tattoos have come about post-heartbreak, but for the opposite reason. My method of self-protection seems to be to race toward that “freedom,” to get back on the horse as soon as possible, to show myself and the world that I’M FINE, so then maybe I will be. The idea for the tattoo has usually been percolating for months and has nothing to do with the relationship at hand, but there’s something about finding myself alone that lights a fire in me to get it NOW. My first tattoo came on the heels of K, and my most recent came after H (about a month ago, H, the Chekhov enthusiast I mentioned previously, made his hasty unanticipated exit). It’s almost as if I’m subconsciously (as Bouillier was no doubt conversely doing with his turtlenecks) trying to reassure myself that life is continuing and I’m actively participating in it. I’m evolving. I’m changing. And the person who walked away doesn’t know the person I am now, at this moment, anymore. That they’ll never know that I’ve changed is irrelevant. It’s the act of moving forward where I find comfort.
I’m absolutely going to purchase a copy of this book. It was (and is) reassuring to know that there’s someone, somewhere, as neurotic and overly-analytical as I am when it comes to affairs of the heart, who has been dropped and has lived to tell the tale. I’m sure this is a book I’ll come back to again and again, as my romantic history unfortunately tends to repeat itself, but next time at least I’ll know to look to the book on the bedside table.
Rubric rating: 9.