“Retours” is a tribute to the early novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, most notably Le Voyeur and La Jalousie. The narrative in both novels is, on the surface, calm, but underneath, the protagonist suffers profound psychological torment always expressed calmly and (apparently) rationally. In “Retours” as in these Robbe-Grillet novels, the event that drives the plot (in Le Voyeur a murder; in La Jalousie, adultery) is never directly shown, but obliquely hinted at by the protagonist’s obsessions.
“Retours” combines these elements: there has been a murder that is never directly revealed, and the protagonist feels an obsessive jealousy. At the end of the story, the reader is led to believe that the protagonist has willed his own death by drowning, but this too is only an interpretation.
There is a break in the middle of the story for a subplot involving an airplane pilot. A very small part of what the pilot sees and thinks refers the reader obliquely to events in the main plot, of which he is completely unaware. In addition to ironic comment, the subplot provides the reader relief from the protagonist’s mental anguish, and then plunges him even deeper into it. (A musical example of this technique is Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony.)
– Terence Kuch (www.terencekuch.net)
Chris is beyond the surf and quickly into rising and falling swells, for the ocean is almost calm today.
Treading water, he looks back toward the shore, idly studies the resort tower where he and Ellie have a
room for the week. Today is their last day. Last day in this place. She is still in their room.
“Are you going in the water?”
“No, I think I’ll stay here and read.”
“What are you reading?”
A few other swimmers are near him. They are all about a hundred feet behind the slightly breaking waves, standing in the water. Between the wave troughs, their feet rise from the bottom, then come down a few inches to the north. And slightly farther out.
“Just something. A French novel.”
(a silence of unreported duration)
“I’m going in. But we could just walk along the beach, if you’d prefer.”
“I think I noticed a sand bar out there yesterday, just beyond the surf.”
(reads; no response)
“I could stand on it and wave to you.”
Chris ignores the other swimmers and looks toward shore. Couples, families, hawkers, college kids playing volleyball. There is a din of happy noise, an occasional shriek of disappointment. A pelican flies overhead. A red umbrella unfolds like a bird’s wing.
The ocean is still warm here. At home it’s already too cold to swim. The sea curls its warmth around his chest and thighs. He relaxes, feeling sand drawn from beneath his toes with every ebb. He shifts his feet slightly to where the sand is yet undisturbed.
He remembers walking on the beach with Ellie, how he studied her reticence, her shifting moods, white arms drawn tight across her chest despite the warm breeze. They dodged beach balls that first day, laughed, passed by old men fishing from a pier. Tonight is their ceremonial dinner at the heralded restaurant. It will mark the end of their week together away from friends, work, the tensions of each day.
The current is gently pushpulling him north along the shore, as well as slightly away from the beach and its undifferentiated noise. The resort tower was in front of him; now it’s slightly to his left. The sun, which had been to the east, is now directly overhead.
As Chris drifts north he idly watches the shore, a slow tour of places with their own names for the sand: Briarcliffe (where the tower is), Atlantic Beach, Crescent Beach, Ocean Drive Beach.
“I’ve been thinking,” she says.
Chris observes that any conversation beginning “I’ve been thinking” is apt to end badly.
“Oh?” he intends to say, not wanting to say “What?”
“What?” he asks.
She offers a thought. It is a thought that obviously hadn’t been thought through, hasn’t until now involved him, hasn’t been discussed and agreed and “voted on,” not that there’s an actual vote, of course. Not that he has ever mentioned “voting” to her, not being ready to do that. Not yet.
“I’ve been thinking,” she says.
“I need to start seeing other people.”
“You mean other men.”
“That’s included in ‘people.’”
“Have you started already?”
“Started seeing other men. That’s included.”
“Stop that. I’d rather not. I don’t feel like doing that. Not today.”
“You mean, ‘Not today with me.’”
“Stop that. You’re hurting me.”
This conversation did not occur at the beach. Possibly, it took place in their room in the resort tower. Possibly, it ended when she said “Stop that,” when she might have gone into the bathroom and tried to lock the door. If she did. If that happened.
Or possibly, the conversation did not take place at all. Not aloud, anyway. Chris may be making it up.
Chris watches a young woman on shore selling ice cream bars from a freezer-cart. She wears very little clothing. The top half of each breast is brown from the sun. The volleyball game has been suspended as the men drift over to her, show off, strike poses, make jokes he cannot hear over the surf. The cart makes a slow processional to his left as he drifts. Before long, he figures, he will be more than a mile north of the resort, at about – oh – Crescent Beach. Not that there’s any way to tell where one beach stops and another starts. He will have to walk back along the beaches, their families, umbrellas, ice cream carts. But that, too, could be of interest, if he were inclined to do so. Look for the ice cream cart, that is. Study the color of its breasts.
The wind rises and the sea swells.
Chris is drifting, barely paddling. Ought to swim back to shore now, he tells himself. Chris is a strong swimmer, but not skillful. Much of his strength is wasted in futile motion, on some theory or other that the sea has dismissed with a shrug.
He realizes that he is farther out than he thought. He begins to swim languidly toward shore, taking his time, surging in time to the swells, then resting as they pull back.
“Some time apart.”
“To see other men?”
“To see David.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“You are my business.”
“Funny, I thought I was your convenience.”
Without actually admitting it, Chris begins swimming more vigorously. His heart begins to pound. She wouldn’t ruin his life, would she? She loves him. That other thing has not yet gone too far. Not too far.
The water feels warm, then cool, without notice or explanation. There is no predicting which Ellie he will see next. He comforts himself by imagining that she shuts down automatically, like a motion-sensor light switch, when he is not with her, when there is no movement. He knows this does not really happen.
“I found the letter from David. I would never snoop.”
Chris is at the beach alone today. Ellie needs some time alone. She enjoys reading, enjoys it very much. That’s why he is in the water alone. She needs some time to think, to decide. That must be it. Chris is making this up. Someone will find her.
Every few minutes a small plane, red or blue, flies up or down the beach, trailing an advertising banner. This minute’s plane is blue enough to be ocean. It is proclaiming to everyone within eyeshot “ALL $5 SUNGLASSES NOW 79¢” and the name of one beachfront establishment or another.
Who would take a job like that? Chris wonders, thinking of the pilot. Noisy, repetitive, wouldn’t pay much. To see what people look like from 300 feet up? He imagines that the heads of the beach people are open at the top and the pilot can see into their minds, know their schemes, see who they are looking slantwise at, the thighs, the breasts, what positions they are imagining. These thoughts interfere with the rhythm of Chris’ swimming.
Now he can barely see the tower. Directly ahead of him is the straggle of buildings that mark Ocean Drive Beach. Chris resolves again, in very earnest now, to swim back to shore. To go back to Ellie who is there, in their room, waiting for him. Quietly. Perhaps reading.
The small blue plane flies north along the shore for thirty minutes, more or less, depending on the day’s headwind, tailwind, sidewind. Then it wheels around where the beach dawdles into marsh, and flies south. It keeps just a little out to sea so those on the beach can read the banner it trails: “Ocean Isle souvenirs half price” perhaps, or “Free T-Shirt With Purchase.”
This is not a great way to make a living, the pilot thinks. He has this thought every time he flies up and down the beach. Occasionally there is something to look at to break the tedium, make him ignore the roar of his old engine. That cute piece selling ice cream, for instance; a nice butt. That’s worth a wiggle-waggle of his wings. It’s also why he keeps binoculars in his plane, 10X-power and with the special image-stabilizing option.
The banner whips in the plane’s wash. It exerts a sideways drag because there is an onshore wind today. The pilot moves his controls to correct for it. Another plane, a red Cessna, approaches. The blue pilot veers to his right, the red pilot to his own right. They wave at each other and don’t quite smile.
Today something new draws his attention as he passes over: a half-dozen police cars are parked at the Briarcliffe, red lights winking. He looks more closely, sees three cops strolling, idly scuffing gravel.
Whatever happened, it’s over. Or it never was. He tells himself a stale joke about doughnuts.
The pilots watch out for pelicans, because hitting one might damage the plane, might clog the engine with violent blood and feathers and shattered bone, causing the plane to blunder clumsily into the sea. Most pelicans will die from other causes, however.
Neither pilot sees the swimmer who is too far out in the ocean for his own good. The pilot of the northbound plane looks in the right direction, but is distracted by a pelican he needs to avoid.
Only four more circuits today, the blue pilot thinks. After sunset he will meet his buddies in a bar unknown to the tourists and have a beer. Two beers. He will tell them that a new pilot is about to join the team, a woman, whaddya think about that. He will tell them that women are easily distracted and moody and have headaches, even though he has no particular objection to female pilots. The others will nod in agreement, or to be polite.
Then he will go home and tell his wife that he had a pretty good day, all things considered. They will have dinner and watch TV. She will speak to him about the events of her day, each one a minor challenge handled well. He will tell her about his day, the engine coughing and needing maintenance but the owner doesn’t give a damn, how the wind wasn’t bad, that he saw police cars, that there was a girl with an ice cream cart drawing young men like bears to the honey pot. He will admit that he finds this funny, or “typical,” but not that the thought of the girl with all those men excites him.
At the appropriate hour they will go to bed. He will make a tentative move that indicates a desire for sex. She will respond not because she’s interested in sex but because he has a boring job that keeps them “from the poor-house” as she likes to say, adding “he’s a good provider,” and so she is complaisant. He will exhaust himself in her, then turn over and have a noisy sleep.
The next day, the small plane will fly north again along the shore, then south. Another plane will fly south, then north. That evening he will tell his wife that nothing happened that day, just another day. She will prepare herself for sex with him, secretly sigh.
A dead pelican will wash up on the beach.
Chris and Ellie had met the previous year, slumming in the undergrad cafeteria, both displaying for their students what “regular people” they were, “still pretty young,” an attitude soon forgotten. They began dating. For him, it seemed a wonderful, idyllic time of bliss. Chris is making this up. What Ellie made up about these same occasions, the beginning of venture, Chris will not know. He is making up what Ellie made up, about how Chris was her shining knight. He wasn’t a knight. Except for the armor, of course.
They had sex on their first date because he wanted to and she didn’t know how she felt about it, didn’t figure out how she felt about it until later. Then it was too late.
Chris and Ellie fell in love at first sight. Chris loves Ellie. Ellie wants to hold Chris forever. That is the formula, anyway.
But now, Chris is swimming. Soon he will be on the beach, walking back to the resort tower, going to their room where Ellie has been reading, where she has not left all day, where there have been no visitors. He will urge her to dress so they can go to the heralded restaurant for the celebration of their week together at the beach. He knows this will be a confrontation of a sort. He is afraid she might already have called room service, already eaten, would refuse to go out with him, would have a headache called “Arthur” (she has names for each kind of headache, she told him once, in honor of the man who provoked its first occurrence). Once he jokingly asked her if there was a headache named “Chris,” but didn’t get an answer.
She might not be there. There had been a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door when he left. Still, a cleaning woman might venture, knock knock gently, “Ma’am?” “Sir?” and hearing only silence, enter.
“I made up a name for the woman you wanted me to be,” she had told him that morning, “’Claire.’ I tried to imagine who Claire was, how I could be Claire for you. God knows how much I wanted to be Claire.”
There are no other swimmers. Now there are occasional whitecaps. He is turned around by one larger wave, looks desperately for the tower, sees it, rights himself. The tower is now almost out of sight, to the south. On this stretch of shore there are no tall buildings; it is easy for him to lose his sense of direction.
“The slave on the pedestal. The house-cleaning sex goddess. It didn’t work. I wasn’t ‘Claire,’ ever. God knows how much I hated being Claire for you.”
If Ellie were on the beach, she might have noticed him far out in the water, calling out and waving his arms, might have sounded the alarm, might have shouted to the lifeguard that her lover was out too far, wasn’t that good a swimmer.
“I don’t quite know how it happened. First we were talking, there in the room. She was lying there, looking beautiful as always.”
Chris strikes out for shore with renewed strength. See how he moves through the waves as if they were clouds! The water is warm and comforting. The water is waiting for him. Why didn’t he know that before?
“I found the letter from David. I would never snoop. My love for you is deeper than ever.”
Yes, he resolves, he will go back to the tower, find her in their room waiting for him, just as she had been when they awoke that morning, he finding his way into her, she not resisting him.
A long time passes. Where is the tower? There, farther to the left, smaller. He should pit his will against the sea, right now. He smiles at the overblown notion.
It seems like a long time. Now the tower is out of sight. Chris has a theory, several theories about the best way to swim back to shore. Someone will find her.
A strong wave crashes into him, lifts him up, then down. He goes under, now regains the surface. There is a taste of salt.
The water is colder here. Tongues of current make him shiver and then they pass and he is warm again.
He feels his heart beating faster. This is panic. Is this panic? Must not panic. He strikes out in long strokes, careful to let the waves help him, glides along with them, then strokes again as the wave recedes. He picks up the tempo.
Chris is standing on a sand bar. Almost. He can almost feel it. There. Just another few inches. The blue advertising plane is flying over the beach, back and forth. Back and forth. Then he doesn’t see it and there is a different plane, a different color. It is saying “Umberto’s for great Italian food.” That is where he intends to take Ellie today, their last evening at the beach.
Or perhaps it is saying “CHANGE THE PAST, ONLY 79¢.”
Could that happen? She didn’t come to the coast with him. Couldn’t make it. Chris came here anyway, because he’d paid for the room in advance and didn’t want to lose the money. Or is time unredeemable, all things eternally present? What if nothing happened this morning? Nothing at all.
“I never agreed. The world is based on agreement, right? Not war and fighting any more, or at least it shouldn’t be and I never agreed.” That’s what Chris said, or intended to say at some time. It would sound more mature than “voting.” Or “fair.”
Chris is waving his arms, even though they are tired from swimming. Somewhere there is a tower. There is a woman in a room on the twelfth floor. Something else must have happened. He will be very surprised when he hears the news.
He wonders how deep the water is now. There is a long slope to this beach, but here it must be fifteen, twenty feet. At least.
Wouldn’t it be excellent to find a sand-bar, one just barely submerged? He could stand on it, on tiptoe perhaps, bounce up as the waves pass to keep his head above water, while he regains his strength for a final push to shore. There! Is that a sand-bar, just an inch below his feet? If he stands on tiptoe he can almost catch his breath, gather strength to swim that last stretch. There must be a sand bar here. He wills it so, fleeting memory of a Danish king.
He will be very surprised when he hears the news. They will tell him, watch carefully for response or reaction, analyze him hawk-minded and with a default of accusation. Something else must have happened.
He rests his feet on the sand-bar. There is the shore; he can barely see it now. No point swimming now, he’ll stand here on the sand-bar. Someone on shore will see him, rescue him.
He should have taken her down to the shore, this day, their last day. She could have brought her book.
Chris feels a warm current engulfing his body. It is, he thinks, surprising to feel a current so warm this far out. The sea loves him. The sea wants to hold him forever. By now they have found the body. Bodies.
“... ces infimes variants, ces coupures, ces retours en arrière...”
– Alain Robbe-Grillet, La Jalousie