As low as the silence
Of a corpse planted in the earth
Nothing but the dark in its head
As dreary and muffled
As autumn in the pond
Covered with dull shame
The widow-poison of its flower
And of these dressed-up idiots
Spits night on us
from Poésie et Vérité (1942)
The moment with the cigarettes wasn’t without consequences. Like some people who think a lot before they act, who are very sure of themselves, Anne wouldn’t tolerate being disobeyed or dishonoured. By being gentle, by releasing her tough hands from my face, she was going against that side of herself. She’d guessed that something was happening, and she would have made me confess to whatever it was, but at the last moment she gave in to pity or indifference. Because she had just as much trouble taking care of me, training me even, as she did accepting my weaknesses. The only thing that pushed her into this role as my tutor, my teacher, was a feeling of duty – that by marrying my dad, she was taking responsibility for me as well. I would have liked it if the constant disapproval, if I can call it that, could have improved to just annoyance. I would have liked it if I could have felt that she was just over-sensitive, because then it would have faded as she got used to me. But it’s much easier to get used to someone’s behaviour if you don’t feel like it’s up to you to sort them out. In six months she would have been tired of me, but in an affectionate way, and that was exactly what I wanted. But it wasn’t going to happen, because she felt responsible for me, and in a way she was, because I was still easily mouldable. That and stubborn.
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.
The next day, as I was walking down to Sal’s house, I felt a lot less sure of my thoughts. To celebrate the release of all that tension, I drank 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 his advertising techniques and probably some kind of scandal to set off my career. 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 became overblown and nothing to do with literature. But my dad was so obviously enjoying himself having a laugh with me that she said nothing. Eventually they put me to bed, tucking me in. I thanked them too many times, and asked what I would do without them. My dad didn’t really 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 that 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 toward the pine woods without noticing the sea at all, or the probably overexcited seagulls.
Two days passed. I was treading water and tiring myself out. I couldn’t free myself, I was obsessed – Anne was going to trash our existence. I didn’t go looking for Salil, because he reassured me and gave me happiness and I didn’t want that. I just collapsed into questioning myself with impossible questions, remembering the before time, fearing the days that were to come. It was so hot – my room was shadowed, my shutters closed, but that wasn’t enough to drain away the heaviness, the stickiness in the air. It was unbearable. I stayed on my bed, head thrown back, eyes on the ceiling, barely moving and if I did, only to find a bit of cold sheet. I didn’t really sleep, I put the old digital radio on at the foot of the bed, found a synthwave channel, where they were playing their slow tracks, almost melody free, just a kind of beautiful rhythm. I smoked a lot. It was decadent, and I liked it. But all this playing around couldn’t distract me. I was still sad and disoriented.
Intermission Montage Soundtrack – Sal sailing around the coast trying to catch a glimpse of her, partying with his friends, thinking about being with another girl who he knows, then turning away at the memory of Ceçile. Her lying on her bed losing her mind. The sun, the sun.
If surprises me how clear my memories are from that point on. I was much more conscious of myself, and everyone else. I paid attention. Before that I was always pretty spontaneous, in a selfish way, which was easy and came naturally to me. But those few days were problematic enough that I had to start thinking more, had to observe myself living. I went through the incredible pain of thinking through my life, and still didn’t end up any more relaxed about what was happening. I thought: my feelings about Anne are stupid and simple, but then the need to separate her from my dad is intense. And why judge myself, anyway? I didn’t have to do anything. I was just me. I was free to just experience whatever happened. For the first time in my life, this ‘me’, my ‘self’, seemed split in two, and the existence of this two-faced side was a big surprise. I found excuses, whispered them to myself, feeling sincere, only to have this other ‘me’ exploding my own arguments, crying that I was fooling myself, even if the arguments looked right at first glance. But wasn’t it really that other ‘me’ that was lying? Wasn’t the obvious response really the worst mistake? Sat in my room I debated for hours whether the fear and anger that Anne made me feel was justified, or whether I was basically a selfish little girl, spoiled, and just lucky to have had some fake independence.
The following morning was painful. I woke up sprawled across my bed in the darkness, my mouth dry, my limbs lost in sweaty sheets. A ray of sun slipped 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 deal with the 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, feeling dizzy and emotional. The mirror showed a sad reflection, and I leaned 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, that must have been down to something with my body. Maybe 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 nights of wickedness. I began to slowly repeat the word ‘wicked’, 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.
Then, one day, it all came to an end. In the morning my dad decided that we should go to Cannes that evening to visit the casinos and clubs. I remember how excited Elsa was. She thrived in casinos and wanted to feel sexy again, after all the sunburn. And also see some other people for a change. I figured Anne would object to such a basic night out, but to my surprise she didn’t – she even seemed happy to be going. So I wasn’t particularly worried when I went to my room to get ready. I put on the evening dress I’d brought along. It was the only one I had, made of a quite strange, thin fabric. Probably a bit too revealing for me, but my dad chose it, and because he had a particular taste, or because he just thought that was what all women wore, he bought me quite seductive clothes. I found him downstairs in a shiny new jacket, and draped my arm around his shoulder.
The most surprising thing over the next few days was how extremely kind Anne was to Elsa. Even with all of the various stupid things Elsa said, Anne never once picked her up on it with one of those short comebacks she had the knack of, which would have really shown her up, poor girl. I silently thanked Anne for her patience and generosity, not realising how closely it was mixed with a kind of manipulation. My dad would have quickly tired of stupid little mind games. Instead he was grateful, and muttered to Anne how he didn’t know how to thank her. But I bet he was starting to get ideas. I thought then that he’d probably start talking to her like a well respected friend, like a second mother to me – and then use this gratitude as a constant excuse to put me under Anne’s care, to make her a bit more responsible for who I was, to bring her closer to him, link her to us more strongly. He had that look, and was behaving towards her like you’d do to someone who you didn’t yet know, but would like to. I mean know in the biblical sense. Like, fucking. The same kind of glance I sometimes caught Salil giving me, which made half made me want to run away, half made me want to tease him. I must have been at a further point than Anne, where I was more easily influenced – she was still reacting to his stare with indifference, with a calm kindness that made me feel a bit better. I began to think that I had just tricked myself back in her room on the first day. What I didn’t see was that this unambiguous kindness just got him going. Just like her silences… Natural and elegant, they were the exact opposite of Elsa’s twittering. It was like day and night. Poor Elsa. She didn’t expect anything, she remained enthusiastic and restless, harassed by the sun.
The following morning a sharp, hot ray of sunlight woke me up, flooding my bed and drawing me from weird, confused dreams where I was struggling. I sleepily tried to shield my face against the heat but soon gave up. It was ten o’clock. I went down to the terrace in my pajamas and found Anne leafing through the morning’s papers, checking her work phone – her makeup was light and perfectly done. She never let herself have a real holiday. Since she was ignoring me I sat quietly on a step with a coffee and a cold orange, and focused on the benefits of the morning. I bit into the orange, feeling its sweet juices rushing into my mouth, then straight away took a gulp of the steaming black coffee, and then took another bite of the cool fruit. The morning sun made my hair hot, and smoothed out my arms where the sheets had left marks. I was thinking of going down to swim soon. Then Anne’s voice made me jump.