When the first notes of the “Triumphal March” rang out on his cell phone, Charlie thought that something had happened to Lili, that time itself had come unhinged, that it might even have stopped. He leaned over, grabbed the phone lying on the floor, and breathlessly answered it. He was surprised to hear a woman’s voice, buoyant and chirpy.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
His heart pounding, he groped for the switch on his bedside lamp, flicked it on, and looked at his watch. 2 a.m.
“Charlie? Charlie!” repeated the woman. “Come on, how can you not recognize my voice?” she continued in a mischievous tone. “Wait, another friend of yours is here. I’ll put him on.”
The phone pressed to his ear, Charlie strained to identify her melodious voice, with its gently mocking intonation, and then he detected whispering and muffled laughter. A man’s voice—it, too, mildly derisive—came on the line:
“Let’s go, old buddy. Get up! We’re waiting for you.”
Charlie hung up. He cursed the practical jokers, party animals no doubt, even as he felt tears of relief well up in his eyes. Ever since Lili had fallen dangerously ill, he was constantly on the alert. He kept his cell phone on at all times. To be sure he would hear its ring during the night, he had stopped wearing the earplugs that had buffered his sleep for twenty years. And there was no longer any question of venturing out, no question of taking trips, even professional ones. To keep the line free, he had ordered his friends and colleagues not to call after 11 p.m.
His night’s rest was shot. From experience, he knew that even with sleeping pills he wouldn’t go back to sleep. Least of all in this heat. His forehead and torso were drenched in sweat. His hands were clammy.
Suddenly, the opening notes of the “Triumphal March” were taunting him again. What if it was the clinic this time? His throat dry, Charlie pressed the green button.
“Charlie, come on, be nice!” insisted the same female voice, spacing out the syllables. “Come down and join us. Don’t you want to see us again? Manon and Bob?”
In the ensuing silence, he thought fleetingly of Manon, then of Bob, then of the two together, a faint echo in his memories of those distant years. What had gotten into those two?
“This isn’t funny,” he groaned. “What do you want from me?”
“We want you to come meet us,” replied Manon, whose tone had suddenly lost its frivolity. In a curious change of tactics, she was trying to sound earnestly persuasive.
“Do you know what time it is? Besides, where are you?”
She let out a gleeful laugh.
“In front of your house!”
Charlie sighed. He got out of bed and followed the corridor from the bedroom to the living room. After a moment of indecision, he approached the window and opened the curtains.
They really were out there, on the sidewalk. Or in any case a man and a woman were leaning against a Peugeot parked at the curb, their heads raised toward the upper floors. When they noticed his presence, they waved energetically.
“Charlie!” they cried. “Get down here!”
Although in his memory Manon’s hair was chestnut-colored, this woman was a blonde. Still, he recognized her right away from her bearing, her figure, and something indefinable, something sensual, that attracted glances and aroused desire. As for the man, it was harder to tell because of his hat and the dark glasses he was wearing. But as soon as he called out, his raspy voice identified him unmistakably.
Charlie hesitated. Now that he was as awake as he’d be in broad daylight, why not invite them upstairs? Anyway, they were going to keep pressuring him until, tired of resisting, he would finally give in.
“I’ll toss you the keys,” he said.
“No, come down. We’re going to have a drink at the Tohu-Bohu.”
At the mention of the Tohu-Bohu, Charlie felt a strange excitement, sparked by his curiosity to know what had become of his former friends and why they had wanted to see him again. Why now, at this unseemly hour? He quickly got dressed. Minutes later, he was embracing them, one after the other. He thought he smelled alcohol on their breaths, but that seemed only natural under the circumstances.
“In you go,” said Manon, opening the door of the Peugeot for him with exaggerated deference. “Bob will sit in the back—that way he’ll be able to strangle you.”
And all three laughed. Charlie took a deep breath of the still balmy nighttime air, laden with intense urban smells. The night sky was starry. And the streets, too, with their streetlights, their luminous signs—all that electricity beckoning them to life, to celebration. In the distance loomed the three government high-rises. Every evening when darkness fell, the buildings were lit up by sweeping spotlights, blue, green and red.
Charlie took his place in the car, slid his seat back and stretched out his legs with a little sigh of comfort. It felt incredibly good to be able to breathe a little. And to meet up with them again after all this time. To tell himself he was still part of their world, despite all that had happened during the long years they had been out of his thoughts. He couldn’t actually remember when they had last seen each other.
With all its windows down, the car drove off and proceeded along the tram line, though the trams were no longer running at that hour. Manon patted Charlie’s knee and told him he hadn’t changed a bit, or just barely.
“That’s a good one,” he replied.
“You live in an exclusive neighborhood,” teased Bob. “At the edge of the woods. Full of pricey houses. But then, you’ve always been a bit of a snob.”
There was very little traffic, yet their progress was regularly impeded by the road repair work that erupted throughout the city every year at summer vacation time. Like every Saturday, the streets were thronged, maybe even more so than usual because of the record-breaking heat wave. Night owls wandered aimlessly, postponing their return to their sweltering apartments, or—who knows—maybe just in search of adventure. Others were lounging on café terraces. Here and there, strolling on the sidewalks, groups of girls were tittering and bands of men were bragging.
Charlie had always loved the night and the city. At one time, albeit many years before, he had taken part in every night out, every silly escapade. In his recollection, though, that era seemed very brief, and he had quickly turned the page and landed a serious job, to which he had chained himself in a frenzy to succeed, becoming in his friends’ eyes an aloof and calculating person, constantly in a rush.
The cityscape unfolded like an old film seen hundreds, even thousands of times. Every once in a while, Bob or Manon interrupted his musings.
“Who’s buying the first round?” put in Bob. “My pinky is pointing at Charlie.”
“Charlie, do you remember Jean-Jacques, the guy who used to do an impression of Belmondo? Well, he’s just been convicted of fraud and false pretenses,” announced Manon.
Charlie this, Charlie that.
Manon drove along nonchalantly, humming as she went. She held the steering wheel casually with her right hand, her left elbow poking through the open window. The Peugeot deftly maneuvered its way through a maze of silent and forsaken streets, where drunken tourists occasionally strayed. Not far away, on the boulevards, the teeming traffic generated a dull rumble, punctuated by backfiring motorcycles and blaring horns.
“We’re here,” said Bob, who had a frog in his throat.
A hundred yards ahead, a neon sign outlined the shape of a half-naked woman, sporting a top hat and raising a glass of champagne from which bubbles were escaping in the form of shooting stars.
Manon parked between a convertible and a motorcycle with a sidecar. She turned toward Charlie and said to him, “I know it’s foolish, but seeing you here makes me want to cry.”
“You’re too emotional,” he said.
“I suppose I am,” admitted Manon as she got out of the car. “Is that a failing?” she added, with a touch of hostility.
“Of course not! I was just kidding.”
Apart from its sign, the Tohu-Bohu bore no resemblance to the bar he’d known in the old days. His memory had retained the image of a cramped, smoky room, full of buzz and intensity. But if the place had seemed confined and deafening in those days, it was because the dance floor was always crowded, whereas on this particular night only one couple was dancing. A handful of other customers were spread around the upper ring of booths or in front of the bar, perched along an interminable row of stools.
It might also have been that all the noise and commotion of those days had been only in his flighty young man’s head. This time, everything struck him as toned down and washed out—the jazz music emanating from the speakers, the pale glow suffusing the premises.
When they had sat down in a booth, Bob removed both his hat and his dark glasses. Charlie, who remembered a thick mane and bushy eyebrows, struggled to hide his astonishment. His friend no longer had any hair, nor any eyebrows, and no eyelashes or facial hair. His head was completely smooth and vaguely alarming.
Bob looked at him with a beaten dog’s eyes, a peculiar smile on his lips. A smile at once tortured and a bit submissive, as if he was afraid to display his appearance and apologetic for subjecting others to it. Charlie told himself that the man was overly self‑effacing and that this condemned him to unhappiness and, ultimately, made others feel uneasy.
Without warning, Bob blurted out, as if he wanted to unburden himself at the earliest opportunity:
“A nervous shock. I lost everything in a few days.”
Charlie nodded in commiseration. He wondered what drama was lurking behind the words and what his friend meant by saying he had lost everything—not just his hair. And why, after having camouflaged what he found shameful, did he now exhibit it? At one time, Charlie would have been more inquisitive, more solicitous, his compassion would have led him to ask tactful questions, but now his own burdens were all he could manage.
Manon turned toward Bob and ran her hand over the top of his head. She invited Charlie to do the same: it was so smooth, she said, and it also brought good luck.
“Isn’t he much sexier like this?”
She planted a quick kiss on Bob’s lips, and he let out a little chuckle, half-amused, half-embarrassed. Charlie imagined that they were lovers, or if they weren’t already, that Manon would attain her goal sooner or later. He shrugged agreeably and declared that in fact Bob’s new look gave him an irresistible allure. It was very fashionable, he added, with a wink to the party in question. Then he raised his hand to summon the waiter.
Once they’d been served, Charlie unfolded his legs and spread his arms over the back of the bench. A succession of jazz tunes overlaid the murmur of conversation.
Manon smiled at him and lit a cigarette.
“So how did you track me down?” he asked.
“We found you, that’s all that matters,” answered Manon with a dismissive gesture.
“Even so, if I’d been expecting you…”
“In this life, we have to be ready for anything,” responded Manon inscrutably. “Cheers!”
“Cheers!” echoed the two men, clinking their glasses of Cointreau.
A few moments later, Charlie clapped his hands in delight. It was doing him good to be here and to be drinking the syrupy alcohol that was slowly making his head spin. Nevertheless, did he have the right to enjoy himself, while Lili…
To keep from thinking about that, he began to talk about his professional career and the advertising agency he had acquired three years before.
Just as Bob was retorting sarcastically, “Aha, so you are rich!” the front door opened, and in stepped a young woman with a luxuriant head of black hair. After a panoramic scan of the room, she headed toward the long counter and took her place on a barstool.
Following her with his gaze, Charlie answered distractedly, “No, I’m not rich.” He wondered what she was doing there, alone, at such an advanced hour of the night. She had the air of belonging to another world, where the usual feelings didn’t exist. Was she a lost soul? A prostitute? After a few moments, the others turned their heads to inspect the object of his interest.
Manon pulled nervously on her cigarette.
“Do you like her? You were always rather crude, Charlie. A crude and unfaithful person.”
Charlie forced himself to laugh, but this was the moment when he got scared. He would not have been able to say why, nor exactly what kind of fear had gripped him. Maybe Bob’s jitters were contagious, as heady and amorphous as the smoke that Manon inhaled before blowing it out, alternately, through her mouth and her nostrils.
With a sweep of his hand, he sliced through the gray curtain that was stinging his eyes.
“You quit smoking?” she asked tentatively.
“It’s been twenty years.”
She sighed moodily and lifted her glass to her lips. Then she looked intently at Charlie, at the table, and again at Charlie.
“I smoke to remind me of a guy who used to smoke like a fiend. I loved him with an insane passion. He was an excellent kisser. He excelled at everything, but he couldn’t have cared less about me, or about anyone else. It was only his sister who counted.”
The fear that had settled in next to Charlie inched even closer to him, and he smelled its sweaty odor to the point of revulsion.
“You used to have chestnut hair, didn’t you?” he said, eager to change the subject.
Manon gave a slow nod of acknowledgment as she stared at him with her big green eyes. Her lips formed an odd smile. She still possessed—perhaps now more than ever—a certain mysterious quality, indefinable yet grounded in sexuality, that had defied the passing years. He had experienced it an hour earlier when she and Bob were clamoring for him beneath his window.
There was a silence.
Manon turned toward Bob and they exchanged stealthy glances.
With careful gestures, Bob resettled his glasses into place and put his hat back on his head. Charlie had the impression that Bob was peering at him through his opaque glasses, but he couldn’t have sworn to it. At this point he was keenly regretting that he’d ever gone off with them. Both of them were eyeing him as if he’d committed an unforgivable offense. Having aged, perhaps. Or being successful. Or having abandoned Lili for the evening.
His sweating became more and more profuse. Breathing was difficult in the nightclub. The inside air was even hotter than the air outdoors, besides which it was foul, if not nauseating.
After clearing his throat, Bob stood up.
“Where are you going?” asked Manon.
“To the men’s room.”
After he had gone off, Manon put her hand on Charlie’s, even as she was reproaching him for his indifference and egotism. Why hadn’t he asked Bob about the latter’s troubles? It wouldn’t have cost him a thing. And Bob’s occupation, and her own, weren’t those of any interest to him? Curiously, her tone was not hostile. Rather, it was almost intimate, yet at the same time menacing, as if he were making his way along a ridgeline that was destined to become more and more knife-edged.
Charlie would have wanted to tell her not to be so anxious about her poor darling, who had not in fact gone to the restroom but had left the bar without a backward glance. Bob and his mystery, Bob and his melodrama. Bob who, with the passage of time, had become a perfect stranger to him, a mere silhouette in a film relegated to the archives.
If he had not been so tired, Charlie would have told Manon that they had been wrong to want to rekindle a burned-out fire. That they would have done better to imitate Bob, walk out the door and wander off separately into the night.
And if he had been brave enough, he would have added that in fact he didn’t give a damn about them. About Bob’s traumatic shock, or her sensuality, or the remarkable vibrations transmitted by her body, her voice and the slightest shifting of her materiality.
Instead of which, he yawned.
“Your face looks drawn,” she said. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”
The bar was emptying out. The waiter was surveying the room with a tired expression. From time to time, the woman with the long black hair swiveled around on her barstool, until her gaze furtively met Charlie’s.
Manon lit another cigarette.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
In truth, he was thinking about Bob, who during their glory days had been a real ball of fire. And if his memory wasn’t playing tricks on him, a brilliant young man. There were some who lived up to their promise and others who went off the rails. Some who are loved and others who aren’t. Some who have regrets and others who don’t. Those who take morphine and those who abstain. And so on and so forth, endlessly. Except that occasionally someone topples over from one side to the other. One day, he goes off the rails. One day, he is no longer loved. One day…
“You smoke too much,” said Charlie irritably. “And besides, it’s prohibited.”
“To smoke too much?”
“To smoke in public places.”
She blew a cloud of smoke in his face.
“Nothing is prohibited, Charlie, you’re in a very good position to know that. I’ll always wonder how you’ve managed to avoid a scandal. You’re hard as nails, aren’t you?”
She snatched his hand and squeezed it quite hard with her hot, bony fingers. Her eyes were burning. She brought her lips close to his and murmured in a plaintive voice, “How could you do that to me, you heartless bastard?”
Charlie distanced his face from hers and freed his hand with a brusque movement. Everything finally seemed clear to him. The reason she had come looking for him was to thrust her anguish in his face. And as for him, the reason he had accepted her invitation was to close the books on the past, now that his future was looking so ghastly. But Manon had not been the only one; there had been so many! He didn’t have time to count them, couldn’t stop to picture each one. Not a shred of pity. Not an ounce of repentance. He had anesthetized himself in the arms of so many women to escape from Lili’s embrace, but Lili had won out over all the others—quite simply, because she was Lili.
Charlie drained his second glass of Cointreau. He took his head in his hands, rubbed his eyes for a long time, and finally said in a soft, almost inaudible voice:
“She’s going to die.”
Instinctively, he fumbled in his pants pocket for his cell phone. It wasn’t there. A violent panic swept over him, to the point that his hands began to tremble uncontrollably. He must have lost his phone, either here or in the car, or perhaps in his haste to leave he had left it at home. With a quick motion, he raked the bench, got down and looked on the floor. Nothing.
“Lend me your cell phone,” he said to Manon, his breathing labored. “I’ll give it right back.”
He punched in his own number. Somewhere, close by or far away, the “Triumphal March” had to be resounding.
“Please, your car keys. Now!”
He dashed outside. To his great surprise, he found Bob leaning against the Peugeot, just as he had awhile ago in front of Charlie’s place. Bob was staring forlornly at the sky, which was opening itself to the first glimmers of daylight. Charlie asked him what he was doing there.
“Waiting for Manon,” answered Bob in a resentful tone.
So that was it? They were both tipsy. Poor Bob. Without explanation, Charlie nudged him aside and opened the car door. He felt around the place where he’d been sitting, then under all the seats. Nothing there, either.
Once back at the Tohu-Bohu, Charlie headed robotically toward the bar. He sat beside the young, black-haired woman and spoke to her as if he wanted her to bear witness to a universal catastrophe.
“I lost my cell phone.”
She shrugged and produced hers from her handbag, but Charlie waved it away. Seconds later, she invited him to escort her home, adding in an emotionless voice that she wasn’t looking for money. As he studied her face and his own in the mirror beneath the rows of bottles, it occurred to him that she was just as lonely as he was, as lonely as Manon, and as Bob.
He was paying the price for abandoning all those women he’d remorselessly cast aside because Lili was the only one who mattered. What had any of the others done wrong? As for Lili, was it that she had preferred her brother to the crowd of men who pursued her? What harm had there been in loving him? The punishment was grossly unjust, but it was always waiting in ambush for you, and any thought of escaping it was delusional.
At this moment, he would have wanted to be in Lili’s place, but then she would have wanted to be in his. There was no way out.
“Shall we go? Are we going?” asked the girl halfheartedly.
“Too tired,” responded Charlie, sliding off the stool.
Manon had left the booth. She advanced slowly across the long-deserted dance floor. Her gaze seemed to drift, as if she no longer had her bearings. He threw her the keys.
They looked at each other.
“Yes?” he repeated.
“Do you remember the days when you used to smoke like a fiend?”
He moved close to her, touched her arm, and said quietly, “You’ve got to go home now.”
He didn’t ask her for a ride, nor did he consider hailing a taxi or taking the earliest Métro. He suddenly had an overwhelming desire to walk, to walk in the awakening city, to walk toward the daylight, toward his cell phone, toward his voicemail messages, to march until he was exhausted, until his exhaustion triumphed.
The original French text appeared in Dieu s’amuse, (c) 2012 by Editions Pierre-Guillaume de Roux.