The following morning was painful. I woke up sprawled across my bed, in the darkness, mouth dry, limbs lost in sweaty sheets. A ray of sun seeped in between the slats of the blind, and dust particles floated up through it in tiny constellations. I couldn’t decide which was worse – staying in bed or trying to move. I wondered whether Elsa had come by yet, how Anne and my father would approach this morning. I tried to use them as motivation to get up, but it didn’t work. Eventually I managed, finding myself stood on the cool tiles of the room, dizzy and emotional. The mirror showed a sad reflection, and I leant my head on it. My pupils were massive, my mouth swollen. My own face looked like a complete stranger. I was suddenly struck with the thought that, since I was so weak and cowardly, it must have been down to my body, the horrible, random definition of my lips. The thought surprised me with its clearness among the wreck of my headache and myself in general. I morbidly entertained myself by hating my face. The bruise, and the shadowed eyes in the darkness reminded me of a Venetian carnevale mask, wrinkled and creased from debauchery. I began to repeat the word ‘debauched’, heavily, looking myself in the eyes, and I straightaway began to smile. All it was was a few evil drinks, a smack in the face and some tears. I cleaned my teeth and went downstairs.
My dad and Anne were already on the terrace, sat close and eating from a small breakfast tray. I threw them a vague hello, then sat down opposite. I didn’t want to look at them, but their silence eventually forced me to raise my eyes. The deepened lines on Anne’s face were the only sign of their night together. They were both smiling, and seemed happy. That impressed me. Happiness alway seemed to me to justify whatever it took to get it. It was always a success.
– Sleep well? said my dad.
– Alright, I said. I drank too much whisky last night.
I poured myself a cup of coffee, and tasted it, but put it down quickly. There was something about their silence that put me on edge, as if they were waiting for something. I was too tired to put up with it for long.
– Okay, what’s up? Stop being so mysterious.
My father calmly lit a cigarette, maybe a bit too calmly. Anne looked at me, and she was obviously embarrassed about something. That was rare. Finally, she spoke –
– I would like to ask you something, she said.
I thought the worst –
– You want me to talk to Elsa again? I said.
She looked away from me, turning herself towards my father.
– Your father and I would like to get married, she said.
I looked at her blankly. Then at my dad. I waited a minute for some sign, some wink from him that would have been just like him, almost impossible, but would have reassured me. He looked at his hands. What the fuck. They meant it.
– Great idea, I said, lost for words.
I couldn’t understand it. My dad, who was so opposed to marriage, always, opposed to chains, had decided in one night to… It would change our entire lives. I would lose all my independence. I had a glimpse of our life together, the three of us, a life suddenly flooded with Anne’s intelligence and refinement. I actually envied her life. Intelligent and thoughtful friends, peaceful, happy evenings. I found myself hating our loud, messy dinners in Paris, the drunks and the Elsas. A feeling of pride, of being better than that, took hold of me.
– It’s a really good idea, I said, and I smiled at them.
– Oh little cat I knew you would be happy, said my father.
He seemed to relax, happy with himself. Marked by the tiredness of love, Anne’s face seemed more free, more tender than I had ever seen it.
– Come here, said my dad.
He held out his two hands and pulled me against him, against her. I was half kneeling in front of them, and they looked at me with gentle emotions, stroking my head. As for me, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this moment was like the centre of a wheel that would turn and change me. But that I was still basically a cat to them, a small affectionate animal. I felt them above me, united by a past, a future, connections that I couldn’t know, but which wouldn’t be able to hold me back. I willed my eyes to close, rested my head on their knees, laughed with them, played my part. Wasn’t I happy? Anne seemed very well, and she was never petty. She’d guided me, taken away all responsibility for my life, showed me in every situation the way to behave. I was fulfilled, and my dad too.
My father rose to look for a bottle of champagne. I felt a bit sick. He was happy, that was the main thing. But he’d always been happy about some woman or other…
– I was a bit afraid of you, said Anne.
– Why? I said.
Hearing this, I understood that if I’d disagreed, I might’ve stopped the marriage of two adults.
– I hope that you aren’t afraid of me, she said, and began to laugh.
I laughed too, because I really was afraid of her. She seemed to be telling me that she knew I was afraid, and that I didn’t need to be.
– Does it seem ridiculous to you, to get married so old?
– You aren’t old, I said, trying to sound as if I believed it, as my dad waltzed over, bottle in hand.
He sat down next to her, arm around her shoulder. The way she moved her body towards him made me lower my eyes. It was definitely this that made her want to marry him – for his laugh, for his reassuring arms, for his strength, his heat. Being forty, the fear of solitude… Getting frisky as the years went on… I’d never really thought of Anne like any other woman. More like a kind of unique being – full of assurance, elegance and intelligence, but never a sensual side, or weakness… I understood that my dad was proud – that the arrogant, indifferent Anne Larsen had chosen to marry him. Did he love her? If he did, could he love her for long? What was there different about this tenderness than that which he felt towards Elsa? I closed my eyes, let the sun numb me. All three of us were on the terrace, feeling timid, having secret fears, happy.
Elsa didn’t come by in the next few days. The week passed very quickly. Seven great, easy days. That was it. We set out complicated plans for the furniture at home, and Paris timetables. Me and my dad made airtight and complicated schedules, since we’d never used one in our lives. I’m not sure we really thought we’d use them. “12:30, lunch, same place every day. Dinner, our house, not going out after.” Did my dad really think that was going to happen? He quickly and happily buried any idea of the partying lifestyle, opting instead for an orderly family life, elegant, organised. They must have been, for him, what they were for me – castles in the sky.
I’ve kept, from this week, a memory I like to dig up occasionally to test myself. Anne was relaxed, confident, expressed a great softness, my dad loved her. I would see them come downstairs, holding hands, laughing together, with dark shadows under their eyes. I swear I wanted that to last forever. We often went along the coast, to have a cocktail on a restaurant terrace. Everywhere we went, we must have looked like one family, normal. And I, who was used to going out alone with my dad, being leered at and getting looks of pity or evil looks, I loved going back to a role that felt more my age. The marriage was going to happen in Paris, as soon as we got back.
Sal was amazed at how quickly our thoughts changed. But he seemed happy at this legal ‘solution’ to my situation. We went out in the boat together, kissing whenever we felt like it and sometimes, when he pressed his mouth against mine I saw again Anne’s face, her lightly bruised face of the mornings, the kind of slowness, the happy carelessness that love gave to her movements, and I was jealous of her. That week, we tired of just kissing, and if Salil had loved me less, we might have gone further than we did. But we did a lot.
At six, after coming back from the islands, he pulled the boat onto the sand. Walking to the house through the pine woods, and to keep warm in the dusk we ran around like kids, trying to trip each other up. He kept on catching up with me, collapsing on me shouting “victory!” and rolling me about in the pine needles, holding me down and kissing me again. It’s really clear, my memory of how these breathless kisses tasted, these carefree kisses, and how Salil’s heart beat against mine, in time with the sucking of the waves along the sand. One, two, three, four beats of his heart and the soft noise on the sand… One, two, three… one – he took a breath, his next kiss was precise, close… well placed… and I suddenly couldn’t hear anything, the sea being drowned out by the rhythmic rushing of my own blood in my ears.
Anne’s voice was tense. Sal was lying against me, we were half naked in the vibrant red and deep shadows of twilight – in that light, she might have misunderstood exactly what we were doing. Sal jumped up, naturally ashamed. I got up slowly onto my elbows, and looked at her. She turned to Salil and spoke to him calmly, almost as if she couldn’t see the state he was in.
– I won’t be seeing you here again, she said.
He didn’t respond, and matched her gaze for a moment, but then leant down and kissed my shoulder before heading off down the path. This gesture took me by surprise, I felt emotional. It was almost like a proposal. Anne looked at me, with the same detached gaze like she was thinking of other things. It pissed me off, if she was thinking of something else, why speak to us? I stood up, collected my shirt and bra and went towards her. I acted embarrassed just out of pure politeness. She picked a pine needle from where it was stuck to my neck, and seemed to really see me for the first time. I saw her put on her beautiful mask of contempt, this tired face of disapproval which made her really beautiful, and made me afraid.
– You do know that this sort of thing generally ends up with you at the clinic, she said.
She stood straight and looked into my eyes, and I felt really terrible. She was one of those people who can speak to you, stood tall, without moving – I needed a chair, some object to hold, a cigarette, to rock in my fingers, to watch it sway.
– No need to exaggerate, I said, smiling. We were just having fun, there’s nothing to worry about.
– I’d like you to please not see him again, she said. Don’t protest. You’re seventeen, and I’m more or less responsible for you at the moment, and I don’t want you to ruin your life chances.
She was acting like she knew exactly what had happened. But she didn’t.
– Anyway, you have work to do, so you won’t be free in the afternoons now.
She turned her back and headed back up the path to the house at her relaxed pace. I was absolutely nailed to the soil in disgust. She believed what she said – my arguments, my denials, she took them with this form of indifference that was worse than mistrust, as if I didn’t exist, as if I was something to be reduced, and not just me, Cécile, who she’d always known, me, who she would have hated to punish like this. My only hope was dad. He would react like usual – Who is this guy, little kitten? Is he handsome at least and healthy? Watch out for the real dickheads, my little kid. I needed him to react like that, or my holidays were over.
Dinner was a nightmare. I would’ve expected someone lesser to say – I won’t tell your father, I’m not a snitch, but you have to promise to work hard. But this kind of calculation wasn’t at all like her. I would’ve loved that, and hated it as well, but at least I would have known she lied sometimes. Instead, as always, she didn’t put a foot wrong and waited until we’d finished our soup to mention it.
– I think you should give your daughter some advice, Raymond. I found her in the woods with Salil, this evening, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves rather too much.
– Why are you saying this? What were they doing?
– I was just kissing him and stuff! I said, mustering as much honesty as I could. Anne thought we were…
– I didn’t think anything, she said, cutting me off. But I think it would be good if she didn’t see him for a while, and she should concentrate on her philosophy.
– Oh poor girl, said my dad… Sal seemed nice enough, didn’t he?
– Cécile is also a nice girl, said Anne. That’s why I would be so distraught if she were to have an accident. If you think of the freedom she has here, always hanging around with that boy, and they have nothing else to do, I think it’s unavoidable. Don’t you?
At the sound of this ‘don’t you’ I looked up at him and he lowered his eyes. Was he worried? Or did he just want this whole conversation to go away?
– You’re probably right, he said. Yeah, after all you should do some work, Cécile. Didn’t you want to resit philosophy?
– Is that what you want me to do? I responded, as brief as I could.
He looked at me, then looked away immediately. I was so confused. I realised then that being carefree was a great way to live, but it meant you were unable to defend yourself against critics.
– Come on, said Anne, grasping my hand beneath the table. You’re just swapping being a wild girl for being a good student, and it’s only for a month. It’s not that serious, right?
She looked at me, he looked at me with a smile – put like that, it seemed so simple. I drew my hand away, carefully.
– Yes, I said. It’s serious.
I said it so softly that they didn’t hear me. Or they didn’t want to. The following morning I was sat in front of my philosophy books. This sentence by Henri Bergson – it took me several minutes to understand it. ‘There is a significant difference that we can find straight away between the effect and the cause. And there is a big difference between acknowledging a rule governing the behaviour of something, and making a statement about the real nature of things. It’s always when we have contact with the creative core of the human species that we can draw together the strength to love humanity.’ I repeated this phrase, softly at first to try not get angry, then louder. I rested my head in my hands and looked at it again, closely. I just about managed to understand it, and I felt as cold and powerless as I had when I first read it. I couldn’t continue. I looked at the next few lines, applying myself, welcoming them, but something rose in me like a breeze, that lifted me and threw me onto my bed. I lay there and thought of Sal waiting for me in the golden cove, the soft rocking of the boat, of the taste of our kisses, and I thought of Anne. The thoughts that I had then made me sit up on the bed, my heart thudding, whispering to myself that they were stupid, evil, that I was just a spoiled, lazy kid who didn’t have a right to think like that. But I continued to think them. I thought how Anne was a pest, and dangerous, and how it would be better if she was thrown right off our path. I remembered that meal from the night before, gritting my teeth. Disgusted, beat by the bitterness I was feeling, I hated it, it made me feel like a fool… Yeah. That was what annoyed me about Anne – she made it hard for me to love myself. I was naturally made for easy happiness, kindness, being carefree, and through her I entered this world of resentment, of bad conscience where, since I wasn’t great at introspection, I completely lost myself. And what had she brought me? I measured her impact – she wanted my dad, she got him, she was making us bit by bit into the husband and daughter of Anne Larsen. Which meant well policed, educated and happy. Because she would make us happy – I really felt the ease at which me and my dad, our erratic selves, would give in to her frameworks, give over to her all our responsibility. She was always too effective. I already felt my dad drawing away from me – that embarrassed face, avoiding me, that he showed at the table obsessed me, tortured me. I remembered all our old games, our cons, laughing when we drove home in the dawn light on the empty roads of Paris. All that was finished. And I would be influenced by her, reworked, given direction by her. It wouldn’t even be too bad – she was smart, ironic, calm, I couldn’t resist her. In six months I wouldn’t even want to.
I had to get off my ass, and get back my dad and live how we used to. I suddenly found so much to like in the two happy, ridiculous years before that holiday, the two years I’d so quickly disowned the other day. The freedom to think, and also to think badly or to not think really at all, the freedom to choose my own life for myself, to choose me. I couldn’t say ‘be myself’, as I was basically a kind of mouldable paste, but at least I could refuse to be moulded.
I know that you could find all kinds of complicated motives for this change, that you could give me all sorts of magnificent neurosis – you could say I loved my dad a bit more than you should. Or that I had really twisted feelings towards Anne. But I know the real reasons – it was the heat, Bergson, and Salil or at least the absence of Salil. I sat all afternoon in a series of really disgusting states of mind, but all coming out of this realisation – Anne could do what she liked with us. I wasn’t used to thinking so much, it made me really irritable. At dinner, like at breakfast, I didn’t open my mouth. My dad thought he needed to joke about it –
– That’s what I love about the youth. how sparky they are, their conversation…
I looked at him violently, harshly. It was true that he loved youth, and who would I have spoken to if not him? We’d spoken of everything. Love. Death. Music. He was abandoning me, leaving me without a defence. I watched him, and thought – you don’t love me anymore, you’ve betrayed me. I tried to make him understand that without speaking. I was fully in tragic mode. He saw me as well, suddenly alarmed, maybe making the connection that it wasn’t a game anymore, and that our agreement was in danger. I saw him freeze, questioning himself. Anne turned to me –
– You look upset, I’m sorry for making you work.
I didn’t respond, I hated myself too much for this kind of drama that was rising, but it was too late, I couldn’t stop it. We finished dinner. On the terrace, in the rectangle of light cast by the window of the dining room, I watched Anne’s hand, a long and living hand, sway, find my dad’s hand. I thought of Salil, I would’ve liked him to take me in his arms on this terrace scattered with cicadas and the moon. I would have liked to be caressed, consoled, helped back to myself. My dad and Anne became quiet – they had a night of love to come. I had Bergson. I tried to cry, tried to feel sad for myself. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t. Already Anne was all that could move me. As if my whole body was sure I could defeat her.