Other than his surprise, my father gave nothing else away. The cleaner explained to him that Elsa had picked up her suitcases and left straight away. I don’t know why she didn’t mention Elsa and me meeting. She was a woman from the countryside, and very sweet. She must have known more or less exactly what was going on, especially since she’d changed all the rooms around. I felt suddenly very thankful for her.
Anne and my dad were being eaten up by their remorse. They paid me loads of attention. They were so kind I couldn’t stand it at first, but I soon began to enjoy it. That didn’t make up for the fact that I had to keep on seeing Elsa and Sal go past arm in arm giving all the signs of being a happy couple. I couldn’t sail anymore, like Elsa could, and had to watch her pass by, with the wind caressing her hair like it used to caress mine. I had absolutely no trouble seeming closed off and pretending to be detached whenever we met them, which soon turned out to be everywhere: in the pine woods, in the local village, on the sea road… Anne would glance at me, change the subject, and rest her hand on my shoulder to comfort me. Have I mentioned that she was a good person? I don’t know if her kindness was down to her intelligence, like a side-effect, or maybe due to her being indifferent. But she always knew what to say, the right gesture, and if I really had been suffering, I couldn’t have found better support than her.
So, I went about without worrying much because, as I mentioned, my dad showed no sign of being jealous. It proved to me his attachment to Anne, and also annoyed me a bit because it showed my plans wouldn’t work. One day he and I were coming back from getting some parcels from the post-office, and we passed Elsa. Either she pretended not to see us or she really didn’t, and, as if he didn’t know her, my dad turned round and watched her go with a quiet whistle –
– Tell me, don’t you think she’s even more beautiful now. Elsa?
– Love suits her, I said.
He threw me a surprised glance –
– You seem to be taking it better…
– What do you want me to say? I said. They’re about the same age. It was probably fate.
– If it weren’t for Anne, it wouldn’t have happened at all. That’s not fate.
He was furious.
– You think he could’ve taken her from me if I didn’t let him? Give me a break…
– Age is still part of it, I said, seriously.
He shrugged. As we walked back, he seemed preoccupied – maybe he was thinking that basically Elsa was young and Salil too – and that by marrying a woman of his own age, he would no longer be the kind of man he used to be – one who didn’t need to worry too much about his age. Suddenly I felt like I was winning. But when I saw Anne’s face, with the small wrinkles in the corner of her eyes, the slightly pursed mouth, I wanted out. It was so easy to indulge in these small games and just… feel sorry later.
A week went by. Sal and Elsa, who weren’t aware how things were going with my dad, must have waited for me each day. I didn’t dare to go over there, they would have made me tell them everything and I wouldn’t be able to control myself. Anyway that afternoon I went to my room, saying to myself I would do some work. I didn’t do any, instead I read a Yoga book I found in the villa bookcase. I really tried to focus my attention on it, and had to stifle my occasional bouts of mad laughter because I thought Anne might hear. I said to her that I was working as hard as I could, I really bought into the idea that I was a betrayed lover who was drawing comfort from the fact that they would be a graduate one day. I had the impression that she thought I might start citing german enlightenment philosophy at the table, which would really have got on my dad’s nerves.
One afternoon, I wrapped myself in a bath towel in an attempt at a sari wrap, and sitting on the floor with my right foot resting on my left thigh, I gazed at myself in the mirror. I’m not trying to be funny or anything, I was trying to attain the superior wisdom of a yogi based on my reading. Then someone knocked at the door. I thought it was the cleaner, and because she was never bothered by anything, I shouted her to enter.
It was Anne. She stayed frozen for a second in the doorway, smiling –
– What are you playing at?
– Yoga, I said. But it’s not a game, it’s a Hindu philosophy.
She walked over to the table and picked up my book. I started to worry. It was open at page one hundred, and I’d scribbled on all the other pages with things like ‘too difficult’ or ‘tired’.
– You’re very thorough, she said. What’s happened to this essay on Pascal you said so much about?
It was true that at dinner I’d enjoyed talking a lot about a phrase from Pascal’s philosophy, giving the impression that I’d thought about it and written something. Basically, I hadn’t written anything. I stayed very still. Anne looked at me without blinking, and then understood.
– If you want to mess around in front of a mirror instead of working, that’s your business! she said. But lying to myself and your father, that’s not on. I did think your sudden intellectual turn was a bit hard to believe…
She left, and I stayed like a statue on the bed in my towel. I didn’t know what she was on about, about lying… I only talked about essays to make her happy, and then all of a sudden she turns on me with contempt. I was used to her new attitude towards me, and this calm and humiliating disgust made me angry. I threw off my towel, put on jeans and an old shirt and left at a run. The heat made me start to sweat instantly, but I ran anyway, driven by a kind of rage, so violent that I knew even at the time I would probably regret it later. I ran all the way to Sal’s, stopping on the porch of their villa, panting. In the heat of the afternoon, the houses seemed strangely intense – silent and withdrawn in amongst their secrets. I went up to Salil’s room, he’d shown it to me the day we went to visit his mother. I opened the door – he was sleeping, stretched across his bed, his cheek on his arm. I watched him for a minute – for the first time he appeared helpless and sweet. I called him in a low voice. He opened his eyes, and sat up as soon as he saw me –
– You? What are you doing here?
I tried to signal to him to not speak so loud – if his mother found me in her son’s room, she wouldn’t be happy. She’d assume we were up to no good. Anyone would. I began to panic and headed down towards the door.
– Hey where are you going? he called. Come back… Cécile.
He’d caught me by the arm and held me there, laughing. I turned round and looked at him. He became quiet and began to tremble, like me, letting go of my wrist. But that was just so he could take me in his arms and lead me back upstairs. My thoughts were confused. I kept thinking – it’s happening, it’s happening. Then we were together. Fear gave a helping hand to lust, softness and anger, followed by the brutal, agonising pleasure. I was lucky. Sal was calm and soft and that was what I needed to learn, on that day.
I lay next to him for an hour, stunned, amazed. I’d always heard people talk of sex like it was nothing – I’d even talked about it crudely like that myself, I was young, I had no idea. I’ll never talk about it like that again, in that detached and vicious way. Sal, stretched out against me, talked about how he would marry me and care for me like that all his life. My silence worried him. I sat up, looked at him and called him ‘my lover’. He leaned towards me. I pressed my mouth against the vein that was still beating in his neck, and I whispered ‘Sal, my dear Sal’. I don’t know if I was in love with him – I’m always changing and I don’t want to mistake myself for something I wasn’t – but in that moment I loved him more than I loved myself, I would have given my life for him. He asked me, as I was leaving, whether I was angry with him and it made me laugh. Angry with him for what, giving me pleasure?
I went back, taking it slow, tired out and numb, through the pine woods – I’d asked Salil not to come with me, it would have been too dangerous. I guessed that the pleasure would be visible in its dazzling signs on my face, in the shadows under my eyes, a depth under my mouth, in shivers. In front of the house, on sun chair, I saw Anne reading. I already had a few good lies to justify my absence, but she didn’t ask me any questions, she never did. So I sat down next to her in silence, and remembered that we’d fallen out. I stayed still, eyes half-closed, listening to the rhythm of my breathing, the trembling of my fingers. Occasionally the image of Sal’s body would appear in my head, or of specific moments… and my mind would empty of everything else.
I took one of her cigarettes from the table, striking a match on the box. It went out. I lit another, carefully. There was no wind, my hand was just trembling. The second went out against my cigarette. I growled and took a third. This third match suddenly seemed incredibly important to me. Probably because Anne, suddenly dragged from her indifference, stared at me without smiling, paying close attention. At that moment the scenery disappeared, time paused, there was nothing else apart from this match, my finger on it, the grey matchbox and Anne’s gaze. My heart was beating like crazy, began thudding against my chest. I tensed my fingers on the match, struck it, and when I turned my head too quickly towards her, my cigarette bumped it and it went out. I let the box fall to the ground and closed my eyes. I felt her hard, questioning gaze weighing me down. I silently begged for anyone, anything to stop all this waiting. I felt Anne’s hands lift up my face, and I closed my eyes tight out of fear that she would see my expression. I felt tears begin to escape, tears of exhaustion, of awkwardness, of pleasure. Then, as if she let her question go, in a gesture of ignorance, of slight forgiveness, Anne let her hands fall down my face, and then let me go. She then placed a lit cigarette into my mouth, and plunged back into her book. I’ve given a symbolic meaning to what she did then, I have tried to give it one. But these days, when I need a match, I remember this strange moment, this gap between my behaviour and me, the weight of Anne’s gaze and the nothingness, the void around it. The force of its emptiness…