Cantona: A Love Story
In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for Inara Verzemnieks' essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.
He is a silent guest at our wedding, there for us as we say yes to each other in the wood-paneled, gilded-frame darkness of a strip-mall chapel where our sole witness is the woman behind the front counter who takes our $75 and poses us like prom dates by the altar for three Polaroid photos also included in the cost. We are 20 years old and love sick, closer to abandon than at any other time in our lives, and so maybe this is why we think of him on this day, why my husband insists on bringing him along, wearing his jersey to the county clerk’s office to apply for our license, donning it as soon as the ceremony is complete. We do not yet apprehend that to elope, for my husband to let the plane that would have carried him back to Wales take off without him, so he can remain here in America with me, is to sacrifice his sense of home in a way that can never be recovered. Instead, he cloaks himself in the closest thing he knows to exuberance, the opposite of swithering: the scribbled, certain motion of a body doing exactly what it should, the crack of a shot, angled high, toward repose, toward perfect stillness, the beautiful, brutal harmonics of someone else’s loss.
Years later, we will learn that this is the same chapel where another famous Number 7 was married. And when we return the day after our vows to take pictures under the chapel’s neon sign, we will stand precisely where that player stood with his wife, as he whispered her name with that Northern Irish lilt that sounds like the soft tap of an instep upon the ball. But on this day, our day, my husband wears the jersey of 7’s latest incarnation, the same jersey that in just five months’ time Eric Cantona will be wearing as he launches himself, feet first, into the puffed-robin chest of a heckling fan.
He is already metaphor by this point. I ask my husband, why do you love him? He is the flick of a heel, he says. He is the cheeky chip over the keeper’s head in the 82nd minute. He is the trawler, trailing gulls in night-feasts on pure seas – reader of Rimbaud, born of Marseille, raised in a cave transformed by a grandfather’s hands into home. Son of a psychiatric nurse, who, after a long day at work, would take brush to canvas, painting for hours, as his boy watched. My parents taught us that we had a duty to observe the world – the beauty of it, the tragedy of it. We would be driving and my father would see something and stop the car, saying: ‘Look at that beautiful light.’
He is the skritch of a ball rolling down pebbled streets, the satisfying thwack of it when launched against a wall, like fist to sternum, the shuddering vibration of it, motion repeated, hundreds of times, thousands of times, until it becomes like the white noise of meditation. Lost in it for hours, the hillocked patch of grass untended by the council, where packs of them play, braying, until there is no more light, mothers’ voices tearing through the dark, marking the way home. And there, inside, a father, soft, in front of the television, numbing the day’s exhaustion with the trill of league results, and upstairs, a little sister mad for football, too, her shoebox room painted red, postered with all things United, the richness of this devotion across generations to be the sum of this family’s inheritance. This is what he leaves at 18, but it is never to leave him, and I am speaking of my husband now, whose story I cannot separate from that of the French striker who signs with United the same year that my husband becomes the first in his family to venture beyond Wales, to choose the freedom of self-determination, improvisation, unpredictability over the comfort of the constant, the quiet, the enduring.
He chooses me. And I know what this means: in the early years of our marriage, there is no internet. He reads of Cantona’s goals in two-week old papers sent from Wales, with notes in the margins scribbled in his father’s hand, annotations to the sports writers’ commentary, a job his father takes as seriously as if he has been tasked with producing scouting reports: the volleyed shot that snicks past the keeper’s ear, taken as if mid-skip; the square-jawed shoulders-back celebrations where he stands perfectly still, offering his profile to the crowd as if to be etched on coin. My husband reads the clippings aloud to me, and in this way, the stories become exactly that: stories. And Cantona becomes a character as complex and paradoxical as if written by Emile Zola. There is beauty. And there is rage. The thrown punch. The thrown boot. The thrown jersey. The stamp of a stud into a prone player’s chest. The stamp of a stud into a fan’s bellowing chest. The refused apology. The refused apology. The refused apology. It is his rage that people cannot seem to reconcile, the lack of shame he feels for it, that he makes no attempt to repress it. It is the object of disgust, of derision, a short-coming, a flaw.
But there is another possibility, one that comes to me more than 20 years after we pose for pictures under the neon sign of our chapel, my husband clad in Cantona’s jersey.
He is bracing for his first round of radiation and chemo, our only hope to rid his body of the tumor that should this fail, will kill him. It is quiet in the exam room, the quiet of two people who after all these years have discovered for the first time what it is to be together, yet utterly alone. As we wait for the oncologist, my husband stares at his phone, and suddenly, I catch a glimpse of what he is watching in this moment, suspended as we are, between loss and life: the red of his jersey against the impossible green, the net quivering.
Rage, I think. Please.
Italicized sections are drawn from Rimbaud’s ‘Est-elle almée’ and a 2012 interview with Cantona by Juilan Coman.
Copyright © 2018, Inara Verzemnieks. All rights reserved.
Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.