His Mother’s Voice
In high spirits, I waved to the waiter, and called my mother to warn her I’d be late. An urgent case, I lied. The way I sometimes lied, though quite rarely.
Oh, no! she shrieked, while I paid the bill with my credit card.
Just a little bit late, I was murmuring, when my gaze landed upon the figure of the young woman sitting at the table just next to mine, on my left. She must have been there for quite a while already—her wine glass was nearly empty—and, given the concentration with which she was reading her newspaper, she wasn’t waiting for anyone, I deduced to my satisfaction.
Maybe I won’t even have any dinner, I murmured then, observing her discreetly.
Thirty years old or so, dark as the devil, almost black, long wavy hair, sober but elegantly dressed in jeans with a white shirt, something familiar and reassuring emanated from her person.
While my mother continued to lecture me—how could I leave her in the lurch like that, not only had she gone to the bother to make pancakes, but I was supposed to go the next morning early to the market at Saint-Denis, my sister (the blessed one) and her husband (the convert) were back from their honeymoon and were coming over for lunch—I looked right at the young woman’s face. Her nose was somewhat flat, her eyes were big and dark, her lips slightly too fleshy, not a trace of makeup, not even the residue of some lipstick or kohl that she might have put on that morning…
You wouldn’t say she was beautiful, exactly, and nothing in her face matched my taste. But no doubt because of the solitude that was starting to bedevil me, and the rum that made it all the sharper, I could not take my eyes off her. She eventually noticed, and raised her gaze from her paper and directed it at me. A gaze that was both hard and frightened at the same time. A gaze that is peculiar to Arab women, one I’ve seen on the face of my mother my sisters my cousins my would-be fiancées, and I picked up on it immediately.
I gave her a faint smile, but she was already folding up her paper and calling the waiter. Instead of asking to pay, as I had thought she would, she wanted to order. The same thing, she said, winking at me, furtively, to be sure, but as eloquently as can be, indicating not only that she was staying but also that she was waiting for some sign from me to get acquainted. I was quivering. But fearful that I might have been mistaken, preferring to intercept some additional sign of encouragement, I did not venture anything.
And given the poise with which she carried herself, with which she called the waiter, and the wink with which she had subtly gratified me, I had a sudden doubt. What if she wasn’t Arab at all, what if she were merely some white woman who had just returned from vacation, her skin gorged with sun?
What on earth would I do with a white woman who didn’t even look like a white woman? I wondered, while she was rummaging in a plastic bag from the La Hune bookstore. A moment later she was holding a book with the most morbid cover imaginable, the photo of a woman who looked anything but alive. I managed to read the name of the author—a woman, an Arabic name, rather of the Middle Eastern variety, someone I’d never heard of. The title, Djamila and Her Mother, with the help of my mother’s voice, momentarily became Mohammed and His Mother. Suppressing a laugh, I swore I had to meet the woman who’d written such a thing.
In short, I continued to observe the young woman who was now reading the summary of the book with an almost joyful expression on her face, as if she were congratulating herself for her purchase, and I was no longer listening to my mother. An Arab, I thought, she must be one of those somewhat rebellious Algerian types. Only Algerian rebellious types could joyfully endure books with such sinister covers, and given the café and the bookstore she hangs out in, she had to be from the intellectual middle class in Algiers.
As a student I’d come across a few girls like her, little daddy’s girls, proud and inaccessible, who came to Paris for their studies and spent their time living it up. They were far too noxious for my convictions at the time, and I avoided them and condemned them with all the fervor I possessed, multiplying my dose of prayers to send those Satanic creatures to rot in hell. Whereas a believer like myself would enjoy the seventy houris promised by Allah: That was my consolation, and whenever they passed before me, I lowered my gaze.
Those days were well behind me now, and my faith had been irrevocably lost, so this girl had come along at just the right time to enliven a few of my evenings on the rue Saint-Placide: Those were my thoughts while my mother continued her desperate soliloquy.
Just as I was hanging up, the young woman detached her gaze from her reading and directed it once again at me. That gaze that was hard and frightened at the same time, and where I could detect a smile.
A few hours later, at around one o’clock in the morning, I came in and closed the door of the apartment in the Saint-Ouen projects. Without switching on the light, I untied my laces and thought back on the nice little evening that I had spent in the company of my first conquest, not yet possessed, but the labyrinths of whom I had the firm intention of exploring. Clefts and slits. Etc.
For our first encounter, I was content merely to listen to her. With grace and level-headedness—her eyes, her lips, her nose that up to now I had not fully appreciated grew lovelier by the minute—she told me about the life she used to lead in Algiers. And then the circumstances, ten years ago now, which had compelled her to leave—fear, blood, the random nature of things, she said. Without any particular emphasis or pathos.
She suddenly stopped talking about herself and began to show an interest in me. What did I do in life, where did I live? For the same reasons that prevent me from knowing why I found her moving, when I had decided to dally only with white women. I don’t know why I omitted to talk about Saint-Ouen. I claimed that I had always lived in this neighborhood, around the 7th or 6th arrondissement, and I left things ambiguous regarding the date of my arrival in France. All I told her was that originally I was from Blida.
She said, “Oh, the city of Roses and of Jean Bensaïd also known as Jean Daniel. But now, alas, it is the capital of the Triangle of Death. You know…”
I knew, because my sister, the walled-up one, lived there, in the Triangle-of-Death, and because my family, since my father’s death, but also because everything was going up in flames, had gone less and less often to visit and finally stopped going altogether—but I kept silent about these details, and about my father’s profession and his death and the circumstances thereof, and about my relationship with my mother, and my brother’s little beard and his friends from the mosque, and my former life as a “good Muslim,” and the plans I had for my book. And my white name, as well. I did let her think that white blood flowed in my veins, inherited from a Norman grandmother, whom my grandfather is supposed to have met during the Second World War and whom he brought to Algeria.
To which she replied by alluding to my “fairly typical physique, all the same.” To change the subject I began to talk about the history of the café: Sartre, Beauvoir, Boris Vian, Juliette Gréco…
She knew all that, she said, laughing. She hadn’t been buried in a cave, she was from Algiers the White, the city where, along with other world monuments, Montherlant had found refuge and asserted his misogyny, she said with a smile, and she informed me that she had a degree in modern literature and that, in any case, for us, for Algerians, Paris held no secrets. Nor did the language of Voltaire, she continued soberly. And she declared, “Algiers was the extension of Paris, and Paris received the waves and echoes of Algiers, as if the sirocco were blowing on the trees of the Tuileries, bringing with it the sand of the desert and the beaches…”
I switched off my cell phone and invited her for dinner. In quieter surroundings, I suggested. She confessed she only rarely came to the Flore, and each time it was by chance, that the place, despite the presence of the Japanese, was a bit too “white” for her. But as she had to be home by midnight, why not have dinner there after all, she said, lighting a cigarette.
I agreed and we had dinner. I ordered the Welsh rarebit, melted cheese on white bread, the specialty of the café, and she was content with a salad of green beans, although she did not skimp where the choice of wine was concerned. And it was excellent wine, moreover, just as the bill, when it came, was steep.
What was it? I wondered as I hunted for my slippers in the dark apartment. That girl deserved better. Her mere presence in the café had gone a long way toward reinforcing my aptitude for pleasure and wonder. In other words, the little doubt that still subsisted regarding my dissidence, thanks to her, thanks to her own emancipation, not from a mother and a brother, but from an entire society, had vanished without trace.
In addition to my gratitude, her body, through the rhythm of her gestures beneath her white shirt, seemed to me the most wonderful thing on earth. And when she agreed to see me again, I was that close to jumping for joy (as I anticipated the moment when I would strip her bare)—even though, through the snatches she had revealed about her life, as I matched up dates and added up years, I very quickly realized that she must be close to forty. Instead of keeping it to myself, I shared my calculations with her, chuckling, adding that I was an uncommon financier.
Her cheeks pink from the wine, and also from my tactlessness, of which this would not be the only instance, she confirmed that she was forty-four, to be precise. Forty-four! I whistled. Suppressing the phrase that was at the tip of my tongue (“You could be my little sister’s mother”), and clearing my throat, I said, “You don’t look it.” Which, as I stated above, was certainly true. But all the same.
Forty-four years old!
A fortysomething, I thought, shoving my feet in my slippers. Staggering, and trying not to bump into the walls, groping my way about on tiptoes, crossing my fingers that my mother would not suddenly appear and see me in this state of inebriation, I found my way to the hall and made it to the bathroom without incident. As I was trying to relieve my stomach, unfairly blaming the quality of the cheese, underestimating the number of glasses I had imbibed, I heard steps in the hallway. Immediately afterwards, a murmur came through the locked door.
“Apple of my eye, is that you? Are you all right?”