By the Orange Glow of the Night Lights

458 readings

45

FINALIST
Jury Selection

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The game was fixed. We both knew it. But I would let myself be deliciously taken in and she would pretend to believe that she was fooling me. With her little fists stretched out under my nose, she looked at me severely: the fattest one contained the treasure. 
I had been looking after Marie every evening for a while. I used to go and fetch her from school and look after her until Chloe came home from work. Then I would quickly make myself scarce. I was working part-time for a while, which meant that I could do it. As long as things went on like that, I made the most of it. 
I pointed at her right fist, the one she couldn’t close properly. I adopted a cunning air which wound her up. 
“No! Do it again,” she said, putting both hands behind her back. 
I could follow in her funny facial expressions the difficult sleight of hand she was attempting. I knew that this time, for the game to remain hers, I must not appear too crafty. 
Chloe had refused to see me and even to speak to me for three months. She had also stopped me from seeing Marie. But I could talk to her on the telephone... That was a torture I soon put an end to. Instead, I sent her drawings which she loved.
I was ready to do anything to see Marie. I knew that now it was all over with Chloe. She would never be able to trust me again. I had made her suffer in such a way that my presence, my very existence, which she could not dismiss easily, was in itself an aggression. I knew that, I felt it and I could manage to live with it. It was part of the new order of things I had learned: I was capable of hurting my wife, and depriving myself of the deep pleasure of her love just to experience moments of fleeting exhilaration. 
Her little left fist was tightly gripping nothing. I pretended to be deeply puzzled by the problem she was setting me. Pretending to be completely confused, I gave in, showing how much I felt I was already beaten. Her face beamed with the pleasure of seeing me fall into the trap. I loved it.
“Ha ha! You’ve lost! You’ve lost!” 
I made ridiculous whimpering noises which overjoyed her. Then suddenly, as I managed to manufacture some tears of defeat, she took my head in her arms and placed lots of kisses on my forehead.
“Oh, poor Daddy! You mustn’t cry! You’ll win next time, I promise.” 
The key turned in the lock. Brave Chloe came into the apartment and the air immediately altered in density. 
“Hello Chloe,” I said to her, without going near her.
“Hello,” she said in a flat voice, without looking at me.
“Mommy! Mommy!” 
Marie ran to her and remained clinging to her body, her cheek against the hand which had greeted her tenderly. 
“Hello, my treasure. How are you? Have you had a good play? Haven’t you been bored? Did you have a nice tea? Come on, say bye-bye to your father.”
Marie was playing with Chloe’s fingers and nodding in answer to all these questions. 
I went up to kiss her and left the apartment without further ado.
“Pierre.”
I turned round. Chloe had kept the door half-open and was looking at me in a way which suggested an army poised for battle. I took a step towards her.
“Pierre, I’ve taken someone on to look after Marie. You don’t need to come any more.”
“But why? I can very easily...”
“No. It’s better. I’m not asking you for any financial contribution, I can afford it.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Well, I would like to think of it in those terms. Pierre. I want us to get divorced. I’ll phone you so we can sort it out. Goodnight.”
When the timer on the light switch plunged the landing into darkness I realized that I had been standing outside the door for a long time, pierced to the core with my mind vacant. I swallowed to loosen the knot in my throat that was suffocating me. Yet I could not find the strength to move, and hardly even to breathe. Gradually the night lights spread a sort of lake of orange over the floor of the hallway, which was very calming. The muffled noises indicating the human agitation within this great mass of concrete gave me the impression I was floating, tiny and lost, in luminous lymph. 
Then I made out Chloe’s laugh through the door, followed by Marie’s. It was as if I found myself miraculously standing on a platform, after falling through emptiness for a long time. 
I had lost them, them and the life that went with them. All that huge loss was mine. That was it. That was how it was. That was what I had chosen. From the beginning I had held out an empty hand, keeping the other behind my back, for what mattered most to me. Yes, I had kept that for myself without even acknowledging it, until the day of the first affair, until the decisive moment, as sharp as a scalpel, when that girl with the wonderful mouth had smiled at me and offered her lips and I had said “Yes!” to my desire, “Come on!”, “Take me!”

Translated by Wendy Cross

45

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