It was only during our first weekend together in the Vosges Mountains that I noticed how in tune we were. Before that, whenever we met I felt as if the city, the noise, and other people were preventing us from being completely ourselves. For our first evenings out we went to restaurants recommended by Sunday magazines, and these were often alike, with the stark lines of their décor, their brightly colored walls, geometric plates and expensive wines. There was nothing to tell us apart from the other couples dining there.
We talked a lot, for people by nature taciturn and thoughtful. I had not yet realized we had this in common and so was trying to get through to you with words, sentences—I think you were doing the same—and all the rest of the noise was simply added to the noise we were making. Returning home after those evenings I was exhausted, as if I had had to communicate using a foreign language. I think I acted like that because I already liked you a lot and was afraid my natural inclination toward silence—for which I have so often been reproached—might drive you away. That was why my last partner had left me. I often think about something he said to me: “Maybe, when it comes down to it, you’re just sly.” That, of course, is precisely the kind of rather cruel remark people fling at one another when they break up, but I remembered my mother using that adjective about me, on occasion, when I was in my teens and she discovered something I had hidden from her.
During those first times together I talked about everything under the sun, without really getting to the heart of any of it: my family, my childhood in Normandy, our holiday home in the Landes, my studies in England, my sister Laura’s wedding that was due to happen the following summer. You talked mainly about your work as a photographer, the places you visited, your plans. You made no mention of your family and in those days I did not ask you any questions on the subject. And yet I had the feeling that, when you were talking to me almost exclusively about your work, you were being more open than I was.
We took advantage of one of your trips to Strasbourg to spend a first weekend away from cities. I caught a train to join you on Friday and we hired a car to take us to that village in the Vosges some thirty miles from Colmar. These were the first days of spring, even though the valleys were still lightly sprinkled with snow in the morning. Slowly, as we made our way up to the village, the air became crystal clear, rid itself of the city’s impurities, and we, too, shed our masks. Where fir trees cast giant shadows on sharp bends in the road it grew dark, but you did not switch on the headlights. Odd gaps allowed us to glimpse part of a valley, a patch of blue sky, a hint of the green, densely wooded hillside we were plunging into. I lowered the window and took a deep breath, inhaling the cocooned scent of that mountain. You held my hand briefly just then and I felt something shiver in the pit of my stomach. Wordlessly, at last, I looked at you and I remember how wonderful your face was that spring afternoon.
Our room at the house we stayed in was simple and spacious, the walls white and bare, the cotton sheets crisp, the quilt plump and fresh. A desk, a vase with wild flowers, wide, almost black floorboards , and a great, light-colored wooden chest which held another quilt. There were red geraniums around the window, hanging from the shutters and in pots on the sill. All the houses there were decorated with flowers like this, I noticed, the best way, perhaps, to mark and welcome the spring, where winter is often harsh. We lay down for a moment and made love in silence with our eyes open. It was not like before, in my room or yours, after those talkative meals or evenings in crowded cinemas. There was something gentler about the way we meshed with one another from then on, our bodies were more at ease together and thus we were speaking a more truthful, more confident language, more loving, too.
During that weekend I discovered your reserve matched mine when we were in wild surroundings and equally in daily life. We went for long walks, occasionally lasting half a day, and when, on our way back down the hillside that led to the village, you held my waist lightly, I felt, at times, like weeping over this unexpected, simple, unpretentious happiness. In the course of one of these excursions we came upon a field of yellow daffodils and, from where we stood, a little above it, they looked like a carpet of gold. We cut down through the fields and it was like being a child again, taking great strides to reach that expanse of flowers. All their yellow took my breath away and, just as when I first went bathing in the sea in the Landes, I had an irresistible urge to dive into it. It was here you took a picture of me for the first time. In the photograph I have rosy cheeks, shining eyes, and an impatient, slightly mischievous smile that makes me bite my upper lip. It is a close-up, there is not a daffodil to be seen, which is what is wonderful about it. We are the only ones who know the source of the emotion that is so apparent on my face, we are the only ones who know all the beauty that filled our eyes at that moment, who know what that weekend had revealed to us about ourselves. This photograph would probably not mean much to other people, but every time I look at it I feel as if I were in the Vosges in early spring once more, the yellow overwhelming my eyes, I picture again the little bunch we picked and placed in the vase in the bedroom, a cluster of gold in that plain and simple spot, with the two of us waltzing gently around it.
On our return from that weekend we did not don our masks again, we stopped reaching out to one another by noise and movement once and for all. We took an apartment my sister had discovered for us several months earlier. At the far end of a sloping, paved courtyard, in a slightly antiquated district, three rooms on the ground floor, where you instantly spotted the future location of your office. These had once been dressmaking workshops, converted for residential accommodation. You had few possessions—most of what you earned went into your equipment and your work—for you had taken advantage of our move to give away your furniture, you said you preferred what I had inherited from my parents and grandparents. The day we moved in you bought some big camellia plants, already well in flower. With the muted light that came into the building, these flowers, delicate and yet fleshy to the touch, gave our interior an old-fashioned feel. You used my grandmother’s ancient bureau to store your equipment and polished the furniture once a month with exaggerated care, as if you were afraid I might reproach you for not looking after it. You often told me I was lucky to have “all this”: the old chiffonier, the photographs, the silver, the chest, my grandmother’s ring. You had no family photographs, not one of you as a child, no object you took round with you from house to house. You were as if new, and I envied you.
In time there were these gestures, expressions. I noticed them by chance, at first, later I came to expect them, in the end I took to counting them. The way you were always the one to break free from an embrace, the way you held my hand in public without really doing so (your fingers remained slack, soft), the way your face smiled at me when I came into your office, then closed up at once, sometimes even before my back was turned. At times you looked at me as if I were a stranger, an intruder or, worse still, sly. You went away for days, weeks at a time, returning with photographs of broken people, skies scarred with smoke, fallen trees. You would shut yourself in your office for a couple of days, then emerge just as before, or almost. But on the plus side, for there must always be one in such matters, there was your face, your talent, your silence that I loved to listen to. There was your body beside me and those childlike sighs you uttered when you were dreaming. I wished I had the courage to rummage through your things, but I did not do so.
At my sister’s wedding you stuck behind your camera and refused to mingle with us, politely at first, firmly later on. You were there in the corner of my eye, like those floaters people with high blood pressure say they have constantly on their retinas. At the end of the evening I went up to you. You were sitting there, cross-legged in a corner of the room, peering at photographs, noting who knows what.
“Would you like a walk on the beach?”
“Yes, why not?”
I knew the way by heart, the slatted path that wound upward, the tall plants tickling one’s calves, the scent of the pine trees receding, the scent of the sea coming in gusts, suddenly hitting us, and the dark plateau streaked with white, which is the expanse of the Atlantic at night. I was panting noisily and because, for once, I could not bear your silence, I longed for you to say something, shout into the wind, yell, I asked you: “What are we going to do now?”
I was standing a few yards away from you and I wanted you to leave me, there and then. I wanted it to be theatrical, for my grief to be echoed by the turmoil of the sea.
You looked me directly in the face and murmured something that sounded to me like “daffodils.”
“Shall we swim?”
And because at that moment I was simply not expecting you to say that, because the sea would have scattered every last one of any words of mine, I followed you into the waves, praying, as I did so, that the wind would blow away a vague premonition that you would not return.
© Nathacha Appanah. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 Geoffrey Strachan. All rights reserved.