by MARYSE CONDÉ
My best friend since elementary school was called Yvelise. Affectionate, as playful as a dragonfly, as good-humored as I was tempermental, so they said. I envied her name that combined her father's and mother's: Yves and Lise. Because I wasn't at all happy with mine. However often my parents drummed it into me that mine was the name of two valiant women pilots who had accomplished God knows what aerial raid shortly before I was born, I was not impressed.
When Yvelise and I walked round the Place de la Victoire arm in arm, strangers who were not familiar with family connections in La Pointe asked if we were twins. We did not look alike, but we were of the same color: not too black, not red either, same height, both gangly, all spindly legs and bony knees, often dressed the same.
Althought some ten years younger, Lise was one of my mother's best friends. They held the same desirable status in society: Both were elementary-school teachers married to men of means. But whereas my mother could rely on a spouse without reproach, Yves was a dedicated womanizer. Lise had never been able to keep a servant girl or a good friend, except for my mother.
Yves had given a bun in the oven to every one of the little country girls who families had entrusted Lise with their education. In fact, when Lise and my mother got together my mother would always have to listen to a poignant tale of marital misfortune, and then administer advice. She did not beat about the bush, and urged divorce with a generous alimony. Lise turned a deaf ear because she adored her handsome man, however much he fooled around.
I was in seventh heaven when Yvelise left Les Abymes and came to live on the Rue-Alexandre-Isaac. In a house close to ours almost as nice. Two stories painted blue and white. Potted bougainvillea on the balcony. Electricity. Running water. On the excuse I was helping her with her homework I constantly hung out at her place. I would have liked to live there. Her mother, too taken with her marital troubles, left us alone. The few times her father was home he joked around with us good-heartedly. He certainly wasn't a pedant like my father. And it wasn't difficult to get her three brothers to drop their shorts and show me their weenies. Then even let me touch them sometimes.
In the mornings, under the alleged supervision of her brothers who were too busy chasing after girls to look after us, we trotted off together to our new school, the Petit Lycee. I can remember these rambles across town when it seemed we were in a realm of our own. The sun frothed like white rum. The sailing ships bound for Marie-Galante huddled in the harbor. The market women seated solidly and squarely on the ground tempted us with topi tamboos and dannikites. Cane juice was sold in tin goblets. The Petit Lycee had just opened on the Rue Gambetta and our parents, out of pure vanity, wanted to be the first in line to enroll us.
I wasn't happy there. First of all, I had lost prestige as the-daughter-of-one-of-the-teachers. Secondly, it was cramped. It had once been a family home like the one we lived in. Bathrooms and kitchens had been turned into classrooms. It was impossible for us to run around yelling in the tiny recreation yard where we quietly played hopscotch.
At school everything conspired to separate me from Yvelise.
It's true we were in the same class. It's true we sat side by side in our often identical dresses. But whereas I sailed through first in everything, Yvelise was always last. If her parents hadn't been who they were she would never have been admitted to the Petit Lycee. Yvelise didn't read, she droned. She thought for a long time before discovering the solution to the mystery of two plus two. Her dictations had fifty mistakes. She was incapable of memorizing a fable by La Fontaine.
When the teacher called her up to the blackboard, she wriggled and fumbled so helplessly that the class was roaring with laughter. She was only good at music and singing, for the Good Lord had endowed her with the voice of a nightingale. The piano teachers chose her to sing the barcarolle solo from The Tales of Hoffmann. The fact that Yvelise was a hopeless pupil had no effect on our relationship. It merely awakened my protective instinct. I was her fearless knight in armor. Anyone who made fun of her had to deal with me.
I was not the only one at the Petit Lycee to take Yvelise under her wing. Our schoolteacher, Madame Ernouville, loved her for her sweet nature. Whereas she hated me because of my unruly ways, especially the way I poked fun at everyone à la Sandrino, even people, she pointed out, who knew more than I did, Yvelise was her little darling. She had more than once urged the principal to caution Lise that I wasn't the sort of company to keep. She wasn't my idea of good company either. She was squat and fat. Light-skinned like an albino. She spoke with a nasal and guttural accent, transforming all her r's into w's, placing a y in front of every vowel and opening wide her o's. When giving a dictation she prounced the word period as pewiod. She was the complete opposite of my mother, as well as of my idea of a woman.
I was convinced Yvelise and I were friends for life, a friendship built on a solid rock foundation. Yet out of spite and a twisted mind Madame Ernouville almost brought it to an end. In December, lacking even more imagination than usual, she asked us to write an essay on the very unoriginal subject, "Describe your best friend."
The topic bored me. I rushed through it and didn't think any more about it once I had handed it in. A few days later Madame Ernouville began giving back the corrected homework with the verdict: "Maryse, eight hours of detention because of all the nasty things you wrote about Yvelise."
Nasty things? Thereupon she began reading my essay out loud in her grating voice: "Yvelise is not pretty. She's not intelligent either." The other girls giggled and cast sideways glances at Yvelise who, hurt by this blunt candidness, was squirming in her seat. Madame Ernouville went on reading. With the same clumsiness, my essay tried to explain the mysterious friendship between a dunce and an exceptionally gifted pupil. In fact, matters would have not gone further than a few snickers and a quick sulk by Yvelise, who was too good-hearted to take umbrage, if Madame Ernouville had not decided to write a report for the principal on what she called my nastiness.
Outraged, the principal informed Yvelise's mother, who took my mother to task violently for the way she brought me up. I had called her daughter an ugly halfwit. Who did I think I was, eh? I was the worthy offspring of a family who was stuck-up, a family of niggers who thought themselves superior to everyone else. My mother took offense. My father too. Yvelise's father in turn got into a huff. In short, the grown-ups entered the dance and forgot the origin of the squabble between us children. The outcome was that my mother forbade me to set foot inside Yvelise's home.
I had to obey and was in agony. Friendship between children has the passion of love. Deprived of Yvelise, I was racked by constant pain like a throbbing toothache. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat, and my dresses hung shapelessly. nothing amused me: neither my brand-new Christmas presents nor Sandrino acting the clown, not even the matinee shows at the Renaissance. Even I, who loved the cinema, was unmoved by the Shirley Temple films. In my head I wrote Yvelise a thousand letters of explanation and apology. But why apologize? What was I being blamed for? For having told the truth? It's true Yvelise wasn't exactly a beauty. It's true she was no good at school. Everyone knew that.
The Christmas vacation lasted an eternity. Finally the Petit Lycee opened its doors again. Yvelise and I were back in the recreation yard together. By the mournful look she shyly cast in my direction and her unsmiling mouth, I knew she had suffered as much as I had. I went over to her and offered her my chocolate bar.
"Do you want half?" I begged in a whisper. She nodded and held out her hand in forgiveness. In class we took up our usual places and Madame Ernouville did not dare separate us. To this day, except for the eclipse of adolescence, my friendship with Yvelise has survived other dramas.
Maryse Conde was born in 1930, and is the celebrated author of I, Tituba, Segu, Windward Heights and Crossing the Mangrove. This essay is excerpted from her memoir, Tales from the Heart, which you can purchase here.
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