Beautiful Shores

Nina Bouraoui  

translated by Sandra Smith

When he told me he’d met another woman, I felt first sadness, then fear, the way you change from backstroke and crawl, to reach the riverbank without drowning.

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I don’t believe in chance, nothing happens by chance, everything is linked, intertwined, embedded, day after day, like in a game of dominos. One thing leads to another, and yet another, but you remain the source of the movement. That is the truth, the only truth. It is difficult to accept because it is simpler not to feel responsible. What happens does not depend on God or the will of some supreme, superior being. God is absent. He comes to you in dreams, if you dream. He appears in the heavens, if you look to the heavens. He makes the leaves on the trees flutter, if you look at the leaves. He makes the waves on the sea, if you look at the sea. He makes the snow on the mountaintops shimmer, if you look at the mountaintops. He exists if you want him to exist. But that is all poetry. I have nothing against poetry, it’s just that, since Adrian left me, I don’t believe in it any more.

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I didn’t see, couldn’t identify, any signs that we would break up. I’d sometimes thought about it, love is unpredictable. It appears when you no longer hope for it, disappears when you think it is safe. You can’t keep hold of it or make it last, except for the time you allow it to last. It is cruel.  It often involves sacrifice. I don’t believe that you can die of love, but its loss kills something within us and without love, we become dry, grey rocks. I never doubted Adrian; it was myself I doubted if I had to doubt someone. I knew myself: after forty years, the mysteries are more or less revealed. My youth was full of failures, passionately destroying anything I attempted, as if some malevolent hand were making all the moves in a game I thought I controlled. I focused my energy on experiences I imagined were important, attributing a dimension to them that didn’t exist. I invented, lied, for it is ruinous for the spirit not to be able to distinguish between true love and simple attachment. I waited for a brighter future. We always tell ourselves that someone will save us when it would be fairer to save ourselves before taking advantage of some triumph due to other people. With age, I had broken my chains, knowing how to distinguish feelings without confusing them, accepting love for what it is and not as a way to relieve the fear of being abandoned.

           I didn’t expect Adrian to save me. I felt his equal. I didn’t own him any more than he owned me. We stood together as one, even with our differences. I nicknamed us the Postive/Negatives because of the color of our hair, blond and brunette, like two prints of a photograph, one deep in shadow and the other full of light. Eight years had gone by without conflict, or very little. Our luck held. I loved Adrian enough to accept that I might fall along with him, if one day he had to fall. I had never imagined he might be the reason why I was drowning.

           It was January 14, 2015, one week after the terrorist attacks. Paris was dismal, the blood still not washed away. We had to compartmentalize our misery according to its severity – minor, average, great – and the chaos of my love life had to give way when faced with the death that happened, but I would have had to be living on a desert island to not link those external events to my internal drama, despite the degrees of gravity and force that separated them.

           It was cold, and so dark that it was as if a hole in the sky had drawn out every ray of light, never to return it. I was wearing my coat and scarf; my bag was over my shoulder and I walked up the staircase of the building two steps at a time. I was eager to get home. It wasn’t fear that was so upsetting, even though I was permanently terrified, which allowed me not a moment’s respite. Going out into the street, walking to the garage, driving, getting stuck in traffic, doing the shopping, going out to a restaurant or the movies, everything sent chills down my spine. I was cowardly. I recognized this without shame: repressed feelings emerge to harm you sooner or later. What I was feeling then was greater than fear. It was an impression of unreality. Even though you could tell yourself that it happened, that the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher Supermarket were true, even though you knew that it would start over again one day, you ended up by expecting – while fearing at the same time – that the day might come when you would finally feel free; what you felt at the moment was a kind of confusion, as if your brain could no longer take in all the details, letting them overflow, outside itself. That was what was the strangest feeling: the blurred perception of things you had acquired to console yourself. Now, we had to look at the world, the city, through a filter to be able to continue to see it. I hated our era, and I wasn’t alone. We had reached the point of no return.

           That week, when I couldn’t manage to get to sleep, I imagined myself miles away from Paris, in the heart of the countryside, hidden in an underground cave, a shelter like the many that exist on the beaches of Brittany and Normandy, where I had spent many long hours as a child, looking for

cartridge casings and bones, heady with excitement at the idea of walking on an abandoned battlefield.

           I was surprised I didn’t include Adrian in my retreat, my fading away into nature, not because I had to but because I couldn’t imagine my future without him. He was included in every moment of my existence, the past, the present and the future, which remained the most difficult to picture. It would also have been much simpler to imagine myself in Zurich, at his place, far from Paris; but I didn’t.

           It was seven thirty when I received his message: “I’m not coming on Friday. I need some freedom.” I read it again, realizing what it obviously meant. He’d met someone else. If a photograph had been taken of me at that instant, it would have caught my anger, not my pain. Pain has its moment, and that moment comes when tears are ready to flow. I still didn’t know my enemy.

           I didn’t reply, waiting was the only power I had over him. I turned my phone off. I slept where he slept when he was in Paris, on the left side of the bed, on my stomach, my hands under crushed my thighs. I could masturbate, I thought about it, this was my favorite position, alone or with Adrian, my whole body pressing against my vagina or opening to let him penetrate me when he was on his back. On the bedside table, there was a clear plastic ball. When you shook it, little white flakes floated all around a miniature forest. I stared at it; it was the only thing that mattered. It symbolized our trips, the trains and planes we’d taken without ever missing one meeting to be together, like the first time. To others, the distance that separated Zurich and Paris would have been an obstacle; for us, it was a blessing. We were free within our love story, two electrons that ended up finding each other to form a single one through a rare, chemical formula that had surprised us from the beginning.

           We had few habits. They concerned the way we fitted into one country then another, living in one apartment then in another, being together then apart. We had escaped the curse of the years, I was not on my guard. I felt no jealousy, never asked him questions about how he spent his time. Whenever I had a doubt, I immediately dismissed it. The things you don’t say out loud don’t exist. That was my theory and it worked. I once read that you could slow down the progression of an illness by refusing to name it, diminishing it as if it were a cherry pit lost in some organ that the body would end up ejecting without being harmed by it. I was absolutely certain that nothing serious would happen. My dark clouds would pass, just like that pit. I possessed weapons to defend myself. So I wasn’t concerned when Adrian put a secret passcode on his phone, or when I surprised him once late at night on WhatsApp, when I thought I heard a voice along with his, brief laughter that a hand seemed to have stiffled before it could burst out. Only the absence of his desire for me would have been a warning sign. That didn’t happen. Pride had been my downfall.

           It was getting later. In the neighboring apartments, a second life was being lived, getting organized, evolving, after work, getting home, everyone took his usual place, played his role. A game with seven families was being played out right before my eyes. I no longer was part of it. Adrian was going to leave me. I compared my love story to an arrow that had missed its target. In his arms a few days earlier, I was now a stranger to him, and him to me. We were still not adversaries, but two substances whose formulas had been inverted to conduct an experiment. I watched the residents flood into the space, stunned. The apartments were identically constructed cages, only their size varied, inside of which each played out the same, single scenario – be together again, talk to each other, entertain each other, feed each other, go to sleep without any pleasure, for some. In one of the cages, a woman was perhaps feeling what I felt. And if that wasn’t the case, then somewhere else, in another part of the city or the world, in a place I couldn’t see from my window, someone was falling into the void at the same time as me. I reached out my hand to her. My sadness was as sharp-edged as a knife.

           As I got undressed to have a bath, I imagined Adrian pressed against someone else’s skin, a warmer, softer skin than mine; I couldn’t get to sleep. I couldn’t feel my body any more, it felt as if it had been hollowed out; someone had crushed, kneaded my flesh. I was trembling, with no support, no wall behind which I could hold myself up or hide. I was not just naked, I had been stripped naked, my heart ruled me and the idea of Adrian with another woman haunted me. I had been chased away, rejected. I’d been punched right in the chest, it was a violent shock that I felt physically. I was the victim of an injustice.

           I had never feared solitude, rather sought it out. I didn’t always miss Adrian when we were each in our own city, I was busy with my day-to-day life which I avoided bringing into my love life, to preserve desire. We remained attracted to one another, through a game of disappearance and busyness, desiring each other every time we were together, without constraining ourselves to what might have become a ritual. We made love without feeling obliged to, it was unthinkable to us not to make love, not to give in to desire. I saw in this a sense of equilibrium and not of necessity, which maintained the freshness of our relationship. In my case, the paths taken led to an impasse.

           Like me, it was the first time that Adrian had a long- distance love affair: we discovered the advantages of freedom subject to certain conditions. We were strong-willed, steady, successfully testing our ability to say no, refusing advances by others, which happened and reassured us; the power of seduction is not a power that you give up, proud to count the passing years that piled up with mild scorn for anyone who ventured too close. We were untouchable; or so I thought.

           The water in my bath hurt as if it had been mixed with acid. The air seemed heavy, full of cement. I couldn’t breathe any more, taking deep breaths that I held in while contracting my stomach, to conserve the oxygen I was lacking. I cried; it was time. Every time I cried, and it was rarely, I felt a kind of sadness that was older than what I was experiencing, buried in the depths of my early childhood and whose impression had stayed with me; my very ancient memories did not help me. This separation, which seemed certain to me, took me back to older separations I could not explain but whose impact I felt again, like a bullet that is lodged in a bone and causes pain just when you think it has healed and disappeared. Every time love is lost, it is buried in the cemetery of dead loves, and its mourning is impossible to envisage. I couldn’t live without Adrian, without the idea of Adrian, in spite of my efforts; I would bear him like a wound beneath my clothing, I knew I would.