Colorful painting in purples, reds, yellows, and blue-greens, showing a table on which rests a bottle and a bouquet of flowers and two chairs; one chair faces away from the table, out toward the viewer
Untitled (2013) by Dorothée Chabas

I sit with my mother at the kitchen table. I ask in English and she answers in French while my phone records our conversation. Outside the window, the garden is wet from Saturday showers. Patches of yellow light come trembling, flickering, dividing onto the tablecloth. The sun is coming back.

What is your favorite time of day?

The early morning, if I can wake up. Around eight, so there is some light. I love being in this moment. When the air is transparent and fresh, when it catches your cheeks and your lungs. There’s no one in the streets yet. I love going to the sea during that time. Sometimes I go to Ocean Beach after I drop off Charlotte. It’s a nice way to wake up, shake things up in your head and in your body. I take off my shoes and the sand is so cool it almost hurts my feet. It’s cold. There’s no one except one or two surfers or people walking their dogs. I’m alone in the fresh air, and for me that’s paradise.

A memory that makes you sad?

I remember being very sad when we lost our baby. Always, always. The kind of sad that hurts. You wake up at night, time stops . . . But now, when I think about it, it’s not like that anymore. It’s digested. Occasionally, maybe once a year, I’ll cry about that. Thinking that she’s not here with us, that she’s missed everything. And thinking, well, it’s grim; it’s stupid. She would be twenty-three. I was also sad at my grandma’s funeral, the tall one. I didn’t get along with her so well. It completely surprised me.

What makes you sad now?

Now, it’s funny, what makes me sad is not to be the person I’d like to be. That’s unbearable. It’s the expectations I have for myself. Professional, mainly. Being far from my family is also a sadness, and sometimes it submerges me. My sister being alone, that kills me too. I feel immense solidarity. I see how she ended up trapped by her own values and her own expectations, and how she did all that she could . . . She doesn’t deserve that.

Which sense do you primarily use to remember things?

The visual. Everything is visual in my head. I just came across graphic summaries of articles in a cell biology journal. I find that extraordinary. Even my thoughts are organized in a visual manner. Some people say that you can make a house in your mind and place certain memories in each room . . . I don’t do it that way at all. For me, it’s geometric. Things are generally organized, but there is some mess. It’s like going to the attic, you know. You know the thing is up there, but you don’t always know where exactly. In medical school, I learned visually. If there were nine types of treatment, I would remember each bullet point with the number to its left circled, one through nine. Then I recopied what I saw in my head. Even when I think about people, I see the relationships. If I could draw them, I would, with arrows, circles and graphs . . . It’s my only way to understand the world. I cannot reach the degree of complexity of my visual thoughts through writing. That’s why art is incredible. But art is sensation and emotion, not analysis. When I met Patrick, he would write me layers and layers of words. And I couldn’t read them all; it was too much for me. I recently found a diary where I said “writing is not fast enough. It’s too easy to get lost in details and rabbit holes.” Nothing remains which I cannot see. Feelings are different, though. The world of emotions doesn’t fit in compartments. So the other sense I utilize is purely emotional. It’s direct. That’s how the brain works. You hold on to emotions more than you hold on to facts. But I have a sensitive emotional memory, so much so that I don’t know how to forget. I’d like to forget from time to time. Seeing someone in pain or perceiving emotion in another, that sticks with me.

A memory that makes you happy?

It’s very strange, but I was incredibly happy when I got married. I know that a lot of people have a hard time with that. When we took off for our honeymoon in Mexico—a real caricature—I remember lying down, because the plane wasn’t full, and telling myself, “It’s crazy to be this happy.” And on the way back, I was pregnant. Well it didn’t last. But I remember that moment. That’s also why it makes me sad, that it didn’t work. Because it was the fruit of, just, we were so happy. I also remember the day you were born. I remember not sleeping and looking at you and thinking to myself: It’s incredible. It’s incredible. A first child does that, I think. And for us, after everything, it was intense. I was completely transported by happiness to welcome you, to meet you.

What makes you happy now?

Going outside, swimming, or hiking, that makes me so happy. When I feel like my life has meaning, like I’m in harmony with my environment. There’s nothing worse than spending a day at home, waiting for nighttime. Doing something and finishing it makes me happy. When I see that you guys are doing well, in little moments, it makes me happy. Like Charlotte making a joke, or hearing little details from you and your brother. I like our nights with our friends. And I like spending time with Patrick at the end of day. It’s our life; we have discussions. We’re next to each other—it’s the realm of the intimate, the intellectual.

Someone who inspired you as a young girl?

Marie Curie. She was from the same town as me, and she was a scientist.

Claudie Haigneré. A French woman who became a minister. She was the first woman in space.

My short grandma. She always said a lot of shit. She was sour, funny, and rebellious. So she inspired me.

My parents’ friends. They were both doctors. She was a psychiatrist; he was a pediatrician. I would listen to them explain their research. I was fascinated even though I didn’t get it. They were role models for a long time.

If you could give a definition of love what would it be?

Oh no, no, no . . . What’s this question? I don’t believe in love. There is no definition of love. That word is both overrated and underrated at the same time. It’s so overused. “Love you!” [in a nasal, Legally Blonde voice] We say it so much that we don’t know what it means anymore. What’s really important isn’t to define it, it’s how you behave with people. It’s what you do.

What about affection?

That’s attachment. The more you’re attached to a person, the more ready you are to support and be with this person. It’s care. Love has an added dimension to it, something physical, dynamic. From a neurological point of view, it’s based on so many different things: frontal, temporal, visual, emotional . . . You just can’t define it. Or at least I don’t know how. And yet I think of myself as a very loving person.

An article of clothing that makes you feel good?

Long black pants with a good cut.

Three-quarter-length sleeves and a good necklace.

And shoes with a little heel.

Your favorite song right now?

Barbara’s “Dis quand reviendras-tu” sung by Jean-Louis Aubert. [She describes him as a very generous man, a bit depressed, extremely talented. She says you can tell all this when he sings.]

Rachid Taha’s take on “Now or Never.” [He’s an Algerian singer in a rock band.]

Five things that you are proud of?

I’m proud of our path as immigrants. We went the whole way, we’re still together, and we took you on an adventure. We changed frames. It was hard, but I’m proud to have lived it and to have shared it with you guys.

Proud . . . I’m not a proud person though, that’s the issue.

I could say that I’m proud of having reinvented my working identity multiple times. To have moved from Paris, worked in the United States, to have gone to art school, and written my book. That, I’m proud of. But at the same time, I didn’t sell much. It didn’t work. I have a hard time with the term “proud.” It doesn’t mean much to me. I support my friends but I couldn’t say that I’m “proud” of it. I think this question doesn’t suit me.

At the end of the interview, she says “I love you very much, even if I can’t define it,” rolls her eyes, and laughs.


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