A woman leaves her husband and two daughters and ventures into a resort in the Algerian desert in search of refuge in this short story by Nina Bouraoui.
I’d like to talk to you and tell you how I arrived here, around eleven in the morning, I’d like to describe the feeling of freedom to you, tell you how strange I felt as the plane flew over the sea of sand on its way to In Salah, how far removed from everything, how close to myself, for the first time in my life, it didn’t seem like an act of heroism to me, more an act of love, yes, that’s what it was, an act of love; I acted out of love for myself, for the very first time, I did it for me and not for anyone else, it’s hard to explain, I’m still floundering, unsettled by the desert’s silence after Algiers, I haven’t found my bearings yet and I’m leaving again tomorrow for Tamanrasset, but when I look at you, sitting there alone by the pool in this hotel built by Fernand Pouillon in the heart of Timimoun, reading your book, I want to tell you the whole story, as if you were my confidante for a night and a day, and my conscience too because I seem to have lost my head, or perhaps I’ve found it again, I know I’m not in my usual state of mind. You’re so serious, so sensible, so sure of yourself, alone, with your books, your newspapers, in the shade of the palm trees, diving into the pool from time to time, traversing its length underwater, your body lit by the already scorching April sun; you’re not French, you’re reading something in English, maybe you’re American, married to an oilman, he’ll be joining you for dinner this evening, maybe you’ve struck out on your own like me, they say the desert can be therapeutic, like the ocean, with its rich store of calming properties; space in the desert is unbounded, earth and sky are one, inseparable, like a painting in three colors, deep, deep blue, light brown swirling in and out of the dunes and then the bright red mud and stone of the small cone-shaped dwellings that look to me like towers in the desert; everyone is a spy here, watching their neighbor in secret, the desert isn’t empty, the men and women who live here stay hidden to protect themselves from nature and its violence, but they know, they know who I am, who you are, perhaps they’re keeping watch on me, on you, I like to think they are, even though I feel no fear all alone here at the end of the world, I don’t feel anxious at all, and if I had to die in the desert, I would greet death as an unexpected but not unwelcome guest, what I mean by that is that I’ve stopped being afraid, I accept what fate has in store for me, come what may, I don’t feel guilty either, although I ought to, I left my husband and my two little girls still asleep in their bedroom this morning, I closed the door of our apartment without a sound so as not to wake them, I crept down the six flights of stairs on the tips of my toes; in the taxi on the way to the airport, I felt a wave of happiness wash over me, I’d love to talk to you about that too, about that wave, flowing through my innermost being like lava, hot and thick, pleasure made real, and yes, freedom. I had to do it, I’m not leaving them, I’m finding myself, I’m not running away from them, I’m making my way toward myself, I’m not letting go of them, I’m taking myself by the hand, putting my arm around my shoulders, I’d kiss myself too if I could, what I feel for myself is not so much desire as a great tenderness, for years I’ve been so hard on my body, I’m sad, it’s probably an illness, although I’ve never thought of myself as ill, but it is true that I’ve never felt fully happy, I’m sure you’d understand if I explained it to you, my happiness is never complete, never whole, there’s always a little crack that ends up getting bigger and engulfing all the small pleasures, the little sparks of light, and then there’s that word that’s always defeated me too: normality. What do I mean? It’s like this, you’ll probably think I’m no good, but I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world to find herself at loggerheads with normality, by which I mean coupledom, apartment, job, household tasks, the fading of desire, boredom, habit; maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I was escaping from this morning as I went through security, as I walked up the Jetway and settled into my window seat, I’d stepped out of normality, me, the little woman who weeps silent tears to avoid frightening the people who rely on her, for they do rely on me, in spite of everything, my daughters, my darling little girls, my husband, my dearest husband, I’m still a pillar in our household, in spite of my tendency to be melancholy. They were sleeping so soundly, I left a note, explaining that I had to go on a journey, that I’d come back better from it, I don’t know if they’ll understand, but I need my solitude, here, as you do perhaps, I look over at you, it’s sunset, nobody’s come to join you, you’re wearing a light green two-piece swimsuit, a straw hat, bangles on your right wrist, a man’s watch, nail polish, you gather up your things, slip on a flower-print dress, you’re wearing sunglasses, you don’t look at me as you walk along the side of the pool and up the stairs to your room; I follow you up, I’m starting to feel chilled, I put on something warmer, I ought to phone them, in Algiers, but I don’t want to, not right now, tomorrow maybe, from Tamanrasset, all I want here is silence, the silence of this place, broken only by the sounds of my imagination; your room is so close to mine, I could join you and tell you how I got married to this country, Algeria, when I married my husband, that it wasn’t only a man I was committing to when I arrived in 1962, the rare French woman to set foot on Algerian soil in those days, I was making a promise to a people standing up for their history, a people protecting their newfound freedom, I was full of pride for my new brothers, although I wasn’t really their sister anymore, I probably never was, not even for one moment. I didn’t understand at first, I believed that love was contagious, I loved this man, I loved his land, I loved all the men and women who’d suffered, who’d fought for their independence, a great and courageous struggle, I thought, their victory was something I admired, but revolutions can be played out over several acts, I didn’t realize the war was far from over. I could talk to you about how I loved the landscape of this country to distraction, this country that I embraced as my own, abandoning France, moving far away from my family, my parents, my brother and sisters who were incapable of loving my new life, for yes, you had to be in love with it to like Algiers, with its dense, masculine crowds, its menacing alleyways. I could spend hours describing the wild daisies to you, the poppies, the creeks below the road along the cliffs, the Kasbah, the Chiffa Gorge, the ravine of the Femme Sauvage. I think we’re alike, you and I. I can hear you, on the other side of the wall, we’re doing things in sync, I’m removing the bedspread just as you are, adjusting the pillows, looking for something to drink in the minibar that’s stopped working, going into the bathroom at the time designated for taking a shower according to the sign at the desk, picking up my bottle of shampoo, my orange-blossom shower gel, getting undressed, as you are, letting the thin stream of water run down my face, my chest, my stomach, and as I wash myself, it’s your skin I feel sliding beneath my soapy palms. I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, darkness has fallen, it seems bigger in the desert, sacred. I can hear your footsteps, you’re talking to someone on the phone, but I can’t understand what you’re saying, I don’t know if it’s French or English you’re speaking, or a secret language. I decide on what to wear, pick out something to sleep in, I’m leaving tomorrow morning at dawn, daylight means safety in the desert, a traveler must follow the light; did you know that Fernand Pouillon said that traveling is like destiny? A road that can’t be closed off or avoided. I like to think I’m following the path of something bigger than myself, that it’s impossible for me to go back; I can hear the swimming pool being filled and then emptied again, the magic of water flowing like this in the depths of the Sahara, there’s a coolness in the air, the lights are coming on in the gardens, I put on my makeup, inspect myself in the mirror, it’s your eyes I’m looking into, then I start to hurry, you’ve already left your room, I can hear you walking down to reception, to meet the man you love perhaps, I think about my husband, my daughters, I see them as three white dots spinning in the darkness, and then they vanish, leaving me to my space, to my adventure. I apply a splash of perfume, select a pair of sandals with heels, I’m wearing a black dress, I wrap a large shawl of fine wool around my shoulders, it’ll keep me warm. I look around for you, I can’t find you, there’s no one at the reception desk, the phone rings and rings, there aren’t many tourists at this time of year, schools are in session, my girls will be going to bed soon, they’ll read, each in her own bed, their father will come and kiss them, tell them he loves them more than anything else in the whole world; more than me, he’ll think to himself as he leaves their room to go and smoke on the narrow balcony that runs the length of our apartment. I could draw a map for you of where we live, the tall trees in the surrounding gardens, the ramp leading to the exit, the streets of Hydra and Paradou, the school my daughters go to, I could tell you that I too love to read, that I’ve spent so much time losing myself in books because real life seems flat to me, words bandage our wounds, they cut too, like knives, but they don’t inflict the pain that real life does; the desert brings me solace, this hotel is my refuge, I see you sitting alone at a table, you’re smoking a cigarette, you’ve ordered something to drink but the waiter’s told you that alcohol is not permitted, you don’t insist, you understand, even though you’d have loved to feel the burn of the whiskey awakening your senses, and your desires too perhaps; I’ve often thought that it’s normal for a woman to desire another woman, I’ve never been shocked by the idea, it’s never made me uncomfortable, I’m not thinking only of the softness this image might evoke, but the harshness too, of control being wrested from one body to the other in a battle that’s never won or lost by either of the partners; women play on equal terms, I don’t know if you’d understand what I’m saying, but this is what I’m thinking as I watch you place your jacket around your bare shoulders to ward off the chill you feel. I smile toward you, you don’t see me. You’re hardly eating, you jot something down in a notebook, shooting stars raining through the skies above Timimoun, a few guests are on their way down to the pool, I can hear them laughing, then their voices fade as if someone’s turned down the volume to let silence fill this space we’re sharing, but you’re not aware of it, or you don’t want to be, maybe you’re preoccupied with your own story, I’d love to know all about it, the arc and span of your life, the walls that stand firm, the arches that collapsed, for I think of life as the work of the lowly architects we are, at times magnificent, at others a failure. I eat sparingly, like you, a few pieces of fruit, some almonds, then I follow you through the hotel gardens, I could reach out and touch you on the shoulder; you’d only have to turn around, brush against me and perhaps embrace me, one word and I’d move closer to you, you’re wearing your blond curls up, I turn back and go the other way, intoxicated by the night and its perfume. I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll lie in wait, awake, keeping vigil, listening for your footsteps, hearing you move around, I’ll know when you’re back from the gardens now shrouded in darkness. I’ve long believed that we could choose our life, make the decision to follow one path rather than another; if I were truly free, as I claim to have been in the plane that was, unbeknownst to me, leading me to you, I’d have come and told you how much your beauty unsettles me, how much your solitude resembles mine. I’m waiting for the light; for mirages are born of light.
Nina Bouraoui, “Une nuit à Timimoun, ” from Une nuit à l'hôtel, published 2020 by Le 1. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. All rights reserved.