The next day, as I was walking down to Sal’s house, I felt a lot less sure of my thoughts. To celebrate the feeling of closure, I’d drunk a lot at dinner – I ended up pretty drunk. I explained to my dad how I was going to study literature, visit professors, that I would end up famous and boring. He would need to use all the techniques of advertising and probably a scandal to set off my caree. We were in hysterics, talking over our crazy ideas. Anne laughed too, less loudly – she was indulging us. From time to time she stopped laughing, when my ideas strayed from literature into simple decadence. But my dad was so obviously enjoying himself messing around with me that she said nothing. Eventually they put me to bed, tucking me in. I thanked them profusely, asked what I would do without them. My dad really didn’t know, and Anne seemed to have some pretty brutal ideas on the subject, but as I was begging her to tell me, as she leaned over, I fell asleep. In the middle of the night, I threw up a lot. Waking up in the morning taught me just how crappy waking up can be. It was worse than I’d ever had before. My thoughts fuzzy, my heart beating too fast, I headed towards the pine woods without noticing the sea at all, or probably the overexcited seagulls.
I found Sal at the gate to their garden. He bounced over to me and hugged me, holding me roughly against him and murmured some confused sentences –
– Ceçile I was really worried… It’s been so long… I didn’t know what you were doing, if that woman was making you ill… I didn’t know I could be so unhappy actually… I sailed past your cove like once or twice a day. I didn’t know how much I loved you…
– Me neither, I said.
In fact, it surprised me and touched me at the same time. I felt bad I was in such a poor state that I couldn’t show how I felt.
– You’re so pale, he said. From now on I’m going to take care of you. I won’t let her abuse you anymore.
So he’d been talking to Elsa. I asked him how his mother liked her.
– I introduced her as a friend, someone with no relatives, said Salil. Elsa’s really nice, by the way. She’s told me everything about Anne. It’s strange that someone who seems so elegant and sharp could be so manipulative.
– Elsa’s exaggerated a lot, I managed to say. I actually meant to say to you that…
– I want to say something to you too, interrupted Sal. Ceçile, I want to marry you.
I panicked. I had to say something, do something. I felt so nauseous I could barely think…
– I love you, said Salil, into my hair. I’ll drop out, I’ve been offered an interesting job, my uncle offered me… I’m twenty-six, I’m not a kid anymore. I’m serious. What do you think?
I desperately searched for something ambiguous to say. I didn’t want to get married. I loved him, but I didn’t want to marry him. I didn’t want to marry anyone, I was exhausted.
– It’s not possible, I stammered. My dad…
– Your dad I can deal with, said Sal.
– Anne won’t like it, I said. She doesn’t think I’m grown up. And if she said no, my dad would say no too. I’m so tired, Sal, my legs are killing me. Let’s sit down. Oh look here’s Elsa.
She was coming downstairs in her dressing gown, looking fresh and bright. I felt drab and weak. Both of them seemed healthy, excited, flourishing almost, and it made me even more depressed. She sat me down, treating me like I’d just got out of prison.
– How’s Raymond? she asked. Does he know I’m back?
She was smiling like someone who has forgiven everything, and hopefully. I couldn’t say anything, couldn’t say to her that my dad had forgotten her, to him that I didn’t want to marry him. I closed my eyes and Sal went off to get some coffee. Elsa spoke a lot, she obviously thought I really knew what I was doing, and had a lot of confidence in me. The coffee was very strong, it smelled great, and the sun soothed me a bit.
– I’ve thought about it a lot, and I haven’t been able to figure it out, said Elsa.
– You can’t, said Salil. It’s an infatuation. She’s got this influence over him. There’s nothing you can do.
– No, there is, I said. There is a way. You guys have no imagination.
I felt flattered, with them listening carefully to my words – they were years older than me and still had no idea. I took a laid back tone.
– It’s a psychology thing, I said.
I spoke for a while, explaining my plan. They made the same objections that I’d made to myself the day before, and I felt a sharp pleasure in destroying them. Despite myself I started to get excited, since I felt like I needed to convince them. I showed them it was possible. All I had to do then was convince them that we shouldn’t do it, but I didn’t have any good arguments stored up for that.
– I don’t like these tricks, said Salil. But if it’s the only way I get to marry you, let’s do it.
– Strictly speaking it’s not Anne’s fault, I said.
– You know that if she stays, you’ll only be able to marry someone she approves of, right? said Elsa.
It was probably true. I could imagine Anne presenting some young guy to me the day of my twentieth birthday, a graduate, with a bright future ahead of him, intelligent, well-balanced, obviously faithful. A bit like Sal, essentially. I began to laugh.
– Come on, don’t laugh! said Sal. Tell me, won’t you be jealous when I’m pretending to love Elsa. How did you come up with this anyway… Do you love me?
He spoke in a low voice. Elsa had quietly moved away. I looked at this tense, brown face, and the dark eyes, Salil’s eyes. He loved me, and it gave me a curious feeling. I looked at his mouth, pulsing with blood, so close… I didn’t feel intellectual anymore. He moved his face until our lips, just beginning to brush, recognised each other. I sat there with my eyes open, his mouth motionless against mine, his warm, firm mouth – I felt him shiver lightly all over, he leant against me more to try calm it, then his lips parted, and his kiss really started, and quickly became urgent, and skilled, too skilled… I realised that I was better at kissing a boy than I was at studying. I broke off from him slightly, breathless.
– Ceçile, we need to live together. I’ll play along, with Elsa.
I wondered if my calculations had been correct. I was the soul, the director behind this drama. I could always stop it.
– You have some pretty strange ideas, said Sal, with his crooked smile, which rolled his lip up and seemed villainous somehow, beautifully evil.
– Just kiss me, I murmured. Quickly.
So, that’s how the drama was set in motion. Despite myself, out of a kind of uncaring curiosity. Sometimes I wish I’d done it out of hatred or violence. At last then I could have blamed myself, me, and not just boredom, sun and Salil’s kisses.
I left my fellow plotters after an hour, feeling quite worried. There were a few arguments I had left to reassure myself – my plan could be bad, my dad could actually love Anne enough to be faithful to her. Anyway, Sal and Elsa couldn’t do anything without me. I would find a good reason to stop the game if my dad seemed about to fall for it. It would be entertaining as well, to see if my psychological calculations were right or wrong.
On top of that, Sal loved me. He wanted to marry me – this thought on it’s own made me euphoric. If he could wait a year or two for me, til I could make the choice for myself as an adult, I would say yeah. I could already see myself living with Salil, sleeping against him, hardly leaving him. Every sunday we would go eat with Anne and my father, a close knit household, and perhaps even Sal’s mum, which would really make it a proper meal.
I found Anne on the terrace, going down to the beach to join my father. She welcomed me ironically, like you welcome someone who’s drunk too much the night before. I asked her what she had almost said to me the previous evening before I drifted off, but she refused, laughing, saying that it would only offend me. My dad came out of the water, large and muscled, he looked great. I went into the sea with Anne, she swam quietly, her head held up so that her hair wouldn’t get wet. Then the three of us lay down side by side, flat on our stomachs, me between them, silent and peaceful.
At that moment the boat made its appearance at the edge of the inlet, sails up. My dad was first to notice it.
– That kid Sal isn’t really a pest, he said, chuckling. Anne, shall we let him off the hook? He’s a good kid, in the end.
I raised my head, sensing danger –
– What’s he doing? He’s coming past the cove again. Oh… He’s not alone.
Anne raised her head now. The boat had passed us and doubled back. I could just make out Sal’s face. I silently begged him to go away.
My dad’s shout made me jump. Even though I was waiting for it.
– Hey, that’s… That’s Elsa! What’s she doing there?
He turned to Anne –
– That girl is just mad. She must’ve grappled onto the poor guy. Maybe she’s living over there with his mum?
But Anne wasn’t listening. She was looking straight at me. I met her gaze then put my head back on the sand, feeling really ashamed. She moved her hand to my neck –
– Look at me, she said. Are you mad at me?
I opened my eyes – she laid her worried gaze on me, almost begging. For the first time she looked at me like I was a thinking, feeling being. It just had to be the day when… I let out a moan, and jerked my head towards my dad to free me from her hand. He was watching the boat.
– My poor little girl, Anne’s voice carried on, now quite low. Oh, Ceçile, it’s partly my fault, maybe I shouldn’t have been so stubborn… I just didn’t want you to get hurt, do you believe me?
She was stroking my hair – the nape of my neck, tenderly. I didn’t move. It felt like sand was being sucked away from under me by a retreating wave – a need for defeat, of softness had grabbed hold of me, and no feeling, not anger or desire had ever unsettled me like this feeling did. I wanted to give up all the drama, confess my whole life to her, put myself into her hands forever. I’d never felt a weakness so complete, so violent. I closed my eyes. It felt like my heart might stop beating.