The Gates of Tunis

by Keija Parssinen

02/23/2016

Sometimes during the unending nothingness of prison days, I imagine what our lives would have been like if Jens hadn’t left the farm. In my mind, it’s always an Eden. I see the ruins of elaborate dinners, wine bottles strewn across the big oaken banquet table, nothing left of a roasted chicken but the bones crisscrossing a glistening pool of fat, a bank of candles burned low, casting a holy glow against the farmhouse’s stone walls. And there’s Jens, elegant Jens, singing Nina Simone in that buttery alto as he washes the dishes, and Anika—beatific, sun-browned—replenishing our wine, her décolleté making a refrained suggestion beneath one of those gauzy white shirts she favored. As for me, I sit at the head of the table, enrapturing them with stories of Tunisia, where I go in annual pilgrimage for Farouk, who made everything at the farm possible. Dear Farouk. Glass raised, I propose a toast: To Farouk, and to the gates of Tunis, portal to our new world.

Jens did leave, though. In the middle of the night, he slunk away like a true Judas. Now I can only return to the events of that summer and try to discern when, exactly, he began to turn away from us.

In early June I arrived in Marseilles by plane, the red Provençal hills spread out below, nerves churning my stomach as we touched down. When I vomited into the sick bag, people clucked contemptuously, unfastening their seat belts and shifting away from me. Amidst these sinuous, sharp-featured people, I felt oafish, grotesque. I clutched my passport and customs card; I was acutely aware of my body, the taste of bile in my mouth, my heavy breasts, the soft roll of my belly. I had never before been out of the country.

I had planned to stay a few nights in the city to get my bearings before pressing on to Aix-en-Provence to commence my internship, but I lasted only one day in that city with its packs of mangy cats, piles of trash, and whores mawkishly calling to me while men in doorways sucked their teeth. The Corniche was magnificent, yes, but even there I sensed menace. You could smell the rotting fish heads from the mongers’ stalls and see the monolith of the Chateau D’If prison rising punitively from the sea. A feeling of deep unease settled over me. I wanted to hail a taxi and return to the airport, board the next flight for the States, for Chicago, where I’d make the reverse journey four hours west to my small Midwestern college, wrap myself in its familiar comforts.

Sometimes I contemplate how different things would be if I had followed that instinct and fled; Farouk would be alive, I wouldn’t have gotten thirty years in Baumettes, yes, but I wouldn’t know Anika. Or Jens. Dear Jens. I’ve forgiven him his weakness. I pass a good portion of my day in meditation; it helps the time go. At the end, I send him aître, loving kindness. Anika, too. I wonder if they think of me often, or at all.

On that first day in France, however, I did not turn back. Dizzy with jet lag and the punishing heat, I stumbled into a café and ordered an espresso. I watched a fat woman with puckered elbows behead large predatory fish, tuna, maybe. Someone had left a copy of Le Monde on the table. I read about a boat full of North African migrants that sank off the coast in the early morning hours, killing everyone on board. Now the murderous sea was placid, kissing the mossy pilings of the harbor. I paid for my coffee, found the train station, and boarded a bus for Aix-en-Provence.

When Anika opened the apartment door to me, disappointment shadowed her face. Before arriving, I knew only that she was Danish, but now I could see that she was also beautiful, slender and tan, with an aristocratic face. Wide-spaced blue eyes, pouty lips, a nose so dainty as to be apologetic. She greeted me in fluid French without any trace of an accent. When I answered, she pretended she couldn’t understand me, making me repeat what I’d said, then correcting my pronunciation after I explained who I was—her new roommate, arrived from Les États Unis.

The apartment building was curved, so that we could see onto our neighbor’s balcony. Every Saturday, the neighbor would wash her underwear in a blue bucket and hang them to dry on a wire she’d affixed to each wall of the balcony. There, her thong underwear flapped in the hot summer air like tiny, bedazzled flags. The scruffy chain-smoker across the courtyard watched the line of damp underwear philosophically, moving only to refill his chipped water glass with salmon-colored rosé. On Saturdays, when I didn’t have to go in to the library where I worked as a stagière, I found myself, out of fear and lethargy, also sitting on the balcony for hours, one floor up from the chain-smoker. It had been so long since I’d slept with a man that at night, I found myself thinking about him and touching myself beneath the sheets.

Most weekends, Anika left to spend time with a family by the name of Henriek, on their farm two hours east of Aix. They were old friends of her father’s, and each time she packed to leave, she promised to take me with her the next weekend. After she left, her perfume lingered in the foyer, so I felt watched as I binged on bread and jam in our tiny kitchen.

Before Jens arrived, I knew no one except for Anika and Marie-Noël, the elderly librarian who hired me to assist with the archives in the library on the Rue des Alumettes. It was dedicated to a poet who wrote of exile and the sea and his longing for a pre-Vichy France. Before the job, I’d never heard of him, and during those weeks when I sorted through the hundreds of newspaper clippings about him, his work, and his politics, I became intensely melancholic. Here was a famous man, a Nobel laureate, someone who had been important to many people, and not that long ago. The fact that I didn’t know of him proved both a deficiency in me, and some bleak universal truth that I, at twenty years old, was not ready to come to grips with. As I walked to work each day, my thighs rubbed together, giving me a welty rash. I’m allergic to France, I thought

At the weekend, I didn’t go to the farmer’s market, or even make it to the threshold of the apartment. In truth, I found being abroad crippling, so I stayed in the apartment, slept, listened to music on my Discman and ate bowls of Muesli cereal from the Monoprix, until, sluggish and uncomfortably full, I fell asleep. Nights when le mistral gusted in from Africa, leaching moisture from every living thing, I awoke to nosebleeds, the metallic taste of blood in my mouth, alarming stains on my pillow. On those interminable weekends, I tried to command myself out of the apartment, but my body wouldn’t comply. My loneliness was full-bodied, a steadfast companion.

The first time Anika left, I went into her bedroom to see what the view was like. The single window looked out on a traffic roundabout and fountain. On her bedside table was a book called Les Francais d’Abord by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a name I knew only from lewd graffiti scrawled on the sides of fountains, on sidewalks. A politician, I’d gathered. Someone divisive from the spring election.

I went to the closet and looked at the things Anika had left behind. Most of her clothing was white—white cotton tunics and linen pants and silver gladiator sandals. Somehow, she managed to avoid looking like a guru or New Age supplicant. Next, I sat on the floor and fingered the vials of perfume on a cardboard box she used as a makeshift vanity. There was one like cut grass and lemons, and a headier one, smelling of roses. I daubed it behind my ears.

She possessed only a few pieces of jewelry: a hammered gold ring, a single opal pendant suspended from a rope chain, and the delicate silver bracelet that she never removed, and which, of course, wasn’t there, though I looked for it. I fastened the necklace around my neck, fingers slipping against the sweat-slick nape. I noticed that she had a pair of exotic-looking slippers in deep red leather, delicate things whose toes came to a whimsical point. They were near the door, one placed jauntily in front of the other, as if she’d stepped out of them in order to take flight.

When she returned that Sunday, her face pink from too much sun, she sprawled on her bed, legs folded into the lotus position. I peeked into her room.

“Anika?” I said.

Oui?” she answered, palm pressed down over her eyes.

“Where did you get your red slippers?”

Ce sont jolies, non? I bought them at the Saturday market. A booth in front of the Midi Café. Watch out for the Moroccan. He’ll try to touch your ankles when he fits you with the shoes.”

That evening, Anika went out with an acquaintance of hers, Nicolas. He was short but handsome; he was in banking and spoke with unapologetic rapidity. I found myself lost in the flurry of greetings and then goodbyes. As Anika left, I watched her thin rump moving through the linen pants. The door closed, I heard the low murmur of voices and then laughter; I felt the instinctive anxiety of knowing I was the subject of their tittering. Settling on our tiny balcony, I quickly drank half a bottle of Côtes-du-Rhones. The chain-smoker was there, his head slumped to one side, an un-ashed cigarette in his right hand. The thongs were gone, taken inside to be put underneath clothing and then exposed again in a flurry of arms and legs. Touch was easy for some people, it seemed. I sat for an hour, listening to the muffled sounds of life unfolding outside the courtyard—car horns, sirens, a man shouting, Ou vas tu? Ou vas tu?

On the way back inside, I rinsed out my tumbler, opened the door of our fridge. I took a cucumber from the top shelf, something I’d bought at the supermarket in a moment of optimism, thinking I could subsist on watery vegetables, white wine and the scent of lavender, transform into the hollow-cheeked Swede my grandmother had been.

Back in my room, I opened all of the windows and secured the shutters so they wouldn’t bang in the wind. It was nine o’clock, the traffic circle below alive with mo-peds and hatchbacks that buzzed like angry bees as they shot up the darkening street. I looked towards the low hills where Cezanne’s studio was. The branches of the plane trees at the roadside formed an arbor so dense I could not tell where one tree started and the next began. I thought of the walnut trees on my parents’ farm, their globular green fruit falling and smashing black beneath the truck and tractor tires. I thought of the sex I’d had so easily at fourteen and throughout my early teen years, and how little I’d been touched since leaving high school. I had a feeling that, despite her beauty and thinness, Anika was still a virgin; she was nineteen and saving herself for something spectacular.

My bed was just a couple of mattresses stacked on top of each other on the floor, so that when I flopped on top of them, there was no give. I turned over on my back and stared up at the white ceiling. I thought of the chain-smoker and how his dirty hair would smell if I pressed my nose into it. As I pulled off my shorts, the wind picked up, the shutters straining against their hooks. I pressed the cucumber to my crotch, moving it slowly at first, then faster, my breath quickening, calf muscles tight. I thought of the Moroccan placing the red slippers on my feet, his hands brushing my ankles, saying he’d never seen anything so beautiful on a woman. I came loudly, startled by the human noise.

One night, Anika and I found ourselves together in the kitchen. She was making a ratatouille while I sat on the balcony drinking cheap white Burgundy and peeling the leaves off a head of butter lettuce. Olive oil sizzled in a pot, and the smell of sautéing garlic dominated the small space.

“Is that all you’re having for dinner?” she asked, pointing the spatula at the lettuce head.

I shrugged. “Probably.”

“You’ll just be hungry later and eat too much cereal again.”  

“Could be,” I said.

I should have realized then that, counter to my belief, Anika was paying attention to what I did; she cared about me. At that particular moment, though, the wine had made me obtuse, dreamy. I watched as she made neat piles of chopped tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant. I looked across the courtyard to see if the chain-smoker was out, but his seat was empty, the white plastic chair turned a dingy gray. The sun was descending, its yellows and oranges pale against the terracotta tiles of the building’s roof. From where I sat, my eyes were level with the stovetop, and I watched as small bubbles of boiling water burst open. She tossed some of the vegetables in with the oil and garlic, then turned to the cupboard to grab a box of couscous. Leveling off a cup, she moved to put it into the boiling water. I took a long drink of wine. I felt entirely at peace with the world, in the way one can when drunk during daylight hours. Before Anika could stir the couscous into the water, a large bubble burst and sprayed her arm.

Sgu!” she said, shaking her wrist.

“Put it under cold water,” I offered.

“I know.”

She removed the silver bracelet, put her forearm under the faucet. After a minute, she twisted the faucet off, so hard it squealed in protest. She emptied the vegetables into the trash and tossed the pot back onto the stove, where it clattered against the burners. Then, in one swift, fluid movement, she grabbed hold of the pot of boiling water and flung it in my direction. When I recall that moment, I see the water silvering, making shapes in the air, before splashing onto the balcony floor and my right calf, which was propped up on a chair. Did you know you can get second degree burns from boiling water? Now, the scar is pale pink and rather pretty, a waxy flower blooming, a permanent reminder of Anika. But that day it was an angry scarlet welt. Once the pain screamed into my brain, which was several long seconds after the water made contact, I lost my breath, doubling over, clawing at the skin like I could scratch the damage away.

But here is what I remember most clearly: Anika throwing herself at my feet, inspecting the wound, begging my forgiveness. She helped me to the bathtub and stripped my clothes off, then held the mobile showerhead over my leg for twenty minutes, until the icy water had sufficiently numbed the pain. Ma pauvre, ma pauvre, she lamented as she tenderly patted me dry. The funny thing was, I wasn’t angry. I felt strangely grateful for her careful ministrations, that day and for the next week, as she tended the blistering skin, rubbing ointment into it, changing the dressing. That’s when things truly began to change between us.

The weekend came, and Anika left for the Henrieks’. On Saturday morning, I discovered that she had left her silver bracelet by the sink. I tried to fasten it around my wrist but it wouldn’t fit; there was a half-inch of skin between the ends of the clasp, so I pocketed it instead. Though the sky was green with a coming storm, I decided I would go to the market and look for a pair of slippers. The lock clicked loudly as I pulled the building door shut behind me. Down the cobblestoned alleyway leading to the Cours Mirabeau, colorful shop awnings flapped in the rising wind. It was approaching noon, and the market crowds had thinned. I found the Moroccan’s booth easily. He was talking animatedly to another shopkeeper. I could see the red slippers stacked behind him in a rough pyramid.

Anika had not mentioned how handsome the Moroccan was, like a guy from a cologne ad, hawkish and unshaven, chest gently convex in a fitted blue soccer jersey. As he rearranged shoes, I watched a vein pulsing through his forearm and wanted suddenly to be underneath him, pinned by those beautiful arms.

Once inside the booth, I hurried to the shoes. Sweat beaded beneath the strap of my purse and along my hairline.

Bonjour,” he said. “Puis-je vous aidez?” He stood at a respectful distance, hands clasped in front of him. “Moi, je suis Farouk. Et vous?”

“Anika,” I said without thinking.

Enchanté.” 

The word silky on his lips. I lurched to a three-legged stool to sit, and Farouk slipped the shoes on my feet. He was fastidious about sizing, going back and forth to the pile to find the perfect fit. As he tried each shoe, his elegant fingers brushed my ankles. His fingernails were short and clean, pinkish against his olive skin. When he found the right pair, he looked at me and smiled broadly, and I felt a hint of his exhalation, laced with mint and cigarette smoke. I fumbled in my purse for a few Euros. As I paid, I mumbled au revoir and turned to go.

“Don’t forget your old shoes!” he said, eyes teasing me.

“It’s okay. Just throw them away.”

“Anika,” he said. “Want to have a coffee this evening? At the Café Midi?”

“Okay,” I said.

The chain-smoker had been gone for a few days; I had no other plans.

The storm hit in the afternoon, thunder cascading out of the hills to echo through the city. Outside the apartment, a large branch fell on a parked car, the alarm sounding shrilly against the storm’s rumblings. When I finally talked myself into meeting Farouk, the streets were empty, rain rushing past in the gutters. As I walked, the slippers got soaked; I could see the dye seeping away like blood in the torrents of rain. Anika’s white tunic was uncomfortably tight across my broad shoulders.

At the Midi, the waiter had moved the outdoor tables inside but left the front panel of the restaurant open. I could smell the rain as I waited, fidgeting on the rickety café chair. When the man brought my café au lait, I noticed he was missing an index finger, the stub a fleshy turnip.

Farouk arrived, his jet hair shining with pomade. As he sat down, the waiter hurried out of the kitchen.

Non, merci, non!” He frowned at Farouk, then swept his hands toward the door, shooing us away. “Nous sommes fermez.” 

I protested, indicating my full coffee cup, but Farouk was already out the door. The waiter watched me, something like disappointment in his eyes. I paid, and as I passed him on my way out, he clucked his tongue at me.

Attention, madamoiselle,” he said. “Les Algériens sont pas dignes de confiance.” He waggled his finger as proof. “Un souvenir de la guerre.”

I nodded, bewildered, as I stumbled into the rain. I wasn’t fluent, and by the time the full meaning of his statement clicked into place, it was too late to respond.

C’est des conneries,” I said, trying out the slang Anika had taught me.

“Oui,”  Farouk breathed, opening an umbrella. “Ca, c’est le Front Nationale, c’est le 21 Avril. C’est fou, bah…” He shrugged, pursed his lips into that pucker the French use to say, what’re you going to do. I wanted him to explain, but he waved a hand, muttering n’importe quoi. Beneath the umbrella, he wrapped an arm around me. Excitement at our closeness melted my indignation. We splashed across the square, and he squeezed my hand, running his index finger up and down my palm. Longing surged through me.

We arrived at his car, a battered red Peugeot. He wanted to show me Cezanne’s studio, so we drove up into the wet hills. The rain had stopped, leaving the air damp and fecund. It was late, the studio already closed, so we parked and shoved our way onto the property through a gap in the perimeter hedge. On the wet lawn, we lay on our backs and giggled like children at the expanse of moody sky spread above us. He leaned over me and placed his mouth on mine, his tongue gentle, probing. When he drew back, I said:  “Tell me about Morocco.”

“That’s a story for another lover,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m from Tunisia. Let me tell you about the gates of Tunis.”

Later, when Anika, Jens, and I fled to the farm, I would think back on this moment and try to conjure Tunis in my mind, the Mediterranean a milky blue, the ruins of Carthage insinuated into the narrow streets of the city, the multi-colored gates that he had described hinting at the labyrinthine courtyard houses inside. I never permitted myself sadness, though; I never cried for Farouk, at the farm or on trial. Anika would have seen it as disloyal.

After that first date, I saw Farouk most days after work. When Anika was away, I invited him into the apartment to make love on my stacked mattresses. Afterwards, we would sit on the balcony and pick out our favorite thongs. Once, I called out to the chain-smoker: “Excusez moi, monsieur! Comment vous appelez-vous? Moi, Je m’appelle Anika, et lui, il est Farouk.” The man nodded but didn’t reply.

On weekends, Farouk and I spent whole days in bed, enthralled by one another. He traced my outline on the sheets, praising my hips, massaging them with the heels of his hands. I tickled his nipples hidden beneath dense tufts of black hair, brushed my lips along the smooth underside of his arms. We ate half-melted calissons straight from the box, licking each other’s sticky fingers. The nights were hot and still save for our thrashing, and I relished the sweat we created.

One day in July, Anika announced that her best friend Jens was coming for a visit. They were in diapers together, had gone to university and studied art history together, had done everything together, really, she said as she mopped the mustard-yellow kitchen tiles.

“How long will he stay?” I asked. I resented his intrusion, this childhood friend who would monopolize Anika’s time just as we were becoming closer.

“A few weeks,” she said. “Everyone adores him. Everyone gives themselves to Jens. You will, too. You’ll see.” Her voice was soft with love.

When he arrived, Jens shouted up to us from the street because the buzzer was broken. I stood at the window watching him. From that distance, he looked like any backpacker, young and unkempt. Up close, however, I could see that he was exactly the kind of friend Anika would have—tall and handsome in a fair, wide-faced Scandinavian way, a degree of hauteur mixed in with his natural ease. And for the first time all summer, Anika seemed happy, fussing over him, bringing him water and a package of Haribo gummies she had bought especially for him. He mussed her hair with his broad palm, kissed her long on the crown of her head in an avuncular way. He was radiant, his flaxen curls boyishly charming. His large body was built for holding other bodies, his mouth for holding other mouths. He was quick to laugh and delighted in teasing Anika until her default sour expression disappeared. I realized what Jens’s most precious gift was: he was happy. Within minutes, my animosity vanished; I was glad he had come.

When I heard him sing for the first time, I was on the balcony eating a bowl of yogurt. It was a Joni Mitchell song, his voice playing with the words, teasing out the sounds in a luxurious, jazzy way, I could drink a case of you, his tenor clear and true as a church bell, moving out the narrow bathroom window to the courtyard. The chain-smoker ashed his cigarette and looked up, something akin to wonder lighting his face. I could see Jens’ wet torso through the window, long and elegant. At the end of the song, a broad silence settled over the courtyard and street, as if the whole city had paused to make room for the beauty of his voice. Then overhead a burst of starlings, an approving encore by a pair of mourning doves perched on the roof. Through the kitchen door, I saw Anika turned toward the bathroom, her face tilted upward like a penitent. That’s the moment I realized her tragedy: she was in love with Jens, who would never love her back, who loved a Polish boxing champion with a crooked nose and a smile like a taunt. He had showed us a photograph on that first night in Aix, biting his lip with pride, eyes alive with desire. “He said he would write to me every day. Not bad for a pugilist, eh?”

“He’s got a common face,” Anika said, turning her back to us and rinsing her dinner plate in the sink.

“Well, he’s got an uncommon cock,” Jens said with a cackle, but Anika breezed out of the room as if to emphasize that the Pole wasn’t worth even a raised eyebrow. Jens looked at me, eyes mirthful. “She can’t help being a snob. Her parents are the fucking Kennedys of Denmark. If JFK had been a paranoid, right-wing cunt, that is.” He lit a cigarette, moving to the window to exhale. “I can say that because her dad’s my godfather.”

Here was a man swimming in so much love, he could say terrible, true things without fear. I felt more alive and honest being near him. I raised my glass in a toast. “To your boxer and his uncommon… stuff.”

Santé!”

A week after Jens’ arrival, he and Anika had a fight. Through the closed door to Anika’s room, Jens barked things in Danish, Anika countering in a shrill whine. They went back and forth like that for a time before I heard Anika sobbing, a gulping, aggressive sound that seemed angrier than her shouting. Gradually the room grew silent, and an hour later, they emerged dressed in tight, shiny clothing that seemed to signal reconciliation. Jens had Bowie make-up on, and Anika’s cheeks and eyes glittered. She said they were going to a nightclub and wouldn’t be back until late. Jens waved a plastic bag at me. “We’re going down the rabbit hole tonight, my dear,” he said gleefully.

“Drugs?” I said.

He giggled. “Acid. The best, the beast!” He sang the last part in a falsetto, then took me by both hands and spun me around, then pulled me into a hug. “You’re so wholesome, sweet Caro.” He gripped my shoulders, bright eyes searching my face. “Vraiment Americaine. You should come with us! Let us corrupt you.”

Before I could agree, Anika said, “No, tonight is for us.”

Her tone was firm, laced with injury; Jens didn’t protest. As the door closed behind them, I wondered what they had fought about, and what she hoped the night would bring her. Did she think that Jens on acid, some alternative Jens, could love her?

I called Farouk and invited him over. I craved his body. He liked to call me petit choufleur and sing songs in Arabic and French, his voice rough but sweet. When he arrived, we sat in the kitchen drinking lukewarm tap water and talking about le mistral, which had blown in along with the full moon.

“Nights like this, I think of Tunisia,” he said. “All my relatives in their courtyard houses, breathing this wind towards us over the Med.”

“You’re a poet,” I said, taking his hand and kissing his hairy knuckles.

“An Arab affliction,” he said, smiling. “Sometimes I think about moving back. I’d be broke, but life would be easier. This country is like a coiled snake.”

I turned his hand over and licked the length of his thumb. “I want my songs,” I said. “Your little cauliflower wants her songs.”

“Lusty girl,” he said with approval.

I let him believe it was lust, because that is easier to grasp than a loneliness so deep it becomes a bodily ache. He grabbed my ponytail and gave it a playful yank. As we fell into bed, I tried to keep my thoughts trained on him, but found myself imagining what Jens and Anika were doing at that moment. I saw them entangled on the dance floor of the club, her mouth parted slightly, his hands on either side of her face. The tenderness between them made me want to cry.

Farouk was laboring on top of me, breathing heavily, when Anika and Jens returned. Anika talked loudly, rapidly, Jens shushing her, his deep voice vibrating through my closed door: Du er okay, du er okay, du er okay. The sound of furniture being displaced, glass breaking, an emphatic shit. If I could have seen through the wall, I would have spotted Jens trying to soothe Anika, smoothing her sweaty hair against her regal forehead, she violently resisting his overtures. A bad trip, she told me later. A paranoid freak-out made worse by the club’s flashing lights and thumping bass.

I placed a finger over Farouk’s mouth, signaling quiet, smiling slyly at our predicament. It felt good to have this secret to keep. He shuddered slightly as he finished, his profile caught in the wash of moonlight. It was the last time we made love, and so it sits in the mind’s eye like a movie still, his beautiful torso in silhouette, a look of satisfaction on his face. That is some consolation, I suppose—that he was happy at the moment of his death.

Feeling contented myself, I must have closed my eyes, my senses overwhelmed from our love-making so that I did not hear the door open. I heard only a sickening thud, felt Farouk’s face mashed into mine, the wetness of his saliva leaking out of his groaning mouth. I gasped under the full weight of his body. A sharp pain in my nose as his face was driven further into mine through repeated blows. Jens’s voice, Ah gud, ah gud, Anika! Nej, stoppe! I tried to roll off the mattress, but Farouk was too heavy, his weight compressing my chest so I couldn’t scream. Finally, with Jens’s help, I struggled out from under the body. For that’s all it was by then—he had no pulse by the time Jens knelt to take it. Anika stood clutching a cast iron pan in both hands, breathless from exertion. I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard I could hear the wet flap of her lips. “What the fuck did you do?” I yelled.

Blood rushing hot behind my eyes, a sudden blackness. The clatter of the heavy pan on the tile floor. A backward swoon. I blinked hard, shook the stars out of my eyes. Blood spread a dark birthmark over the floor. Farouk’s skull was badly mashed, but he didn’t moan, didn’t make a sound. All I heard in those stretched seconds was Anika’s breathing, shallow and quick.

She fell to her knees, pressing her forehead to the floor like a penitent. Perhaps that’s not the right word, though, because Anika never indicated that what she’d done needed forgiveness.

I lunged past her, reaching for the light switch even though part of me didn’t want to see, wanted to pretend that Farouk was just sleeping, as he often did after our lovemaking. Under the lights, the blood became clownishly red, like something from a budget movie set. I remember how the unreality of it calmed me in that moment.

“What are we going to do?” Jens said, voice edged in panic.

“How could you bring him here, to our home?” Anika stammered, getting to her feet. Her pupils were huge and consuming. Then, to my surprise, she collapsed into me, and I became aware of my nakedness, the trickle of semen down my thigh. “Hold me,” she said. “Hold me, please. I’m scared.”

When I clasped my arms around her thin frame, my anger dissolved. She felt so frail. She needs me, I thought. It was the first time in my life I’d felt necessary to someone else, and I was surprised by the feeling’s potency.

“I’ll take care of you, Anika.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

After a minute, she squirmed away, whimpering. I knelt and placed my hands on Farouk’s body. I tried to summon tears; I smelled his blood in the air, but I couldn’t remember what he tasted like. Maybe it was shock that emptied my mind of him, but in light of what developed between Anika, Jens, and me afterwards, I realize maybe it was a kind of preparatory cleansing.

Then something strange happened: Jens turned to me and asked what we should do. The words burned through me; I knew I had to answer correctly or risk upsetting this new, fragile balance between us.

“I need a minute,” I said. “Go to Anika’s room and lie down, both of you. You’re in bad shape.”

Dazed, I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. What were we going to do? For it was we now. I thought of the movies, how those scripts played out after something bad happened. Standing over the body, the friends usually made a pact, then got the hell out of there. That seemed right. I was relieved to have a plan.

I glanced in the direction of the balcony. The doors were open as they always were that summer, to let the breeze through. Beyond them, I could see the courtyard, blue-white with moonlight, and the gray plume of the chain-smoker’s cigarette, like breath on a cold morning. My heart turned over. Quickly, I shut and locked the doors.

By dawn, the two of them were drained but coherent, the acid flushed from their systems. I said, Go here, do this, pick up that, and they did. Was it gratitude shining in their eyes, or merely the drug’s residual glaze? Jens mopped up the blood slowly, as if he’d forgotten how, then helped me wrap Farouk in a sheet.

“It was the drugs,” Anika said, rubbing her temples in slow circles. “Mon dieu.” 

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Come on. We can’t stay here.”

I found Farouk’s keys on the kitchen table. The hallway of the building was silent. We paused frequently as we carried the body down, our labored breathing echoing along the concrete stairwell. Outside on the empty street, we heaved him into the trunk of his hatchback.

“Go to the farm,” Anika said. “The Henrieks are in Chamonix for the month.”

And so I drove out of Aix, dawn breaking like fire over the hills behind us.

On the farm, we didn’t live like fugitives. More like citizens of our own country, a self-sustaining place, a place where we lived by the senses, where we ate food and drank wine that came from the earth beneath our feet. On the farm, we were futureless and free, bodies moving through space, hopping from one minute to the next. I’d never felt more vital.

Which is not to say we didn’t have rules or establish a sense of order. We obeyed the perimeter fence. None of us was allowed to leave, or permit ourselves to be seen by the neighbors, which wasn’t difficult since the farm was three hundred mostly-forested acres. We decided that inside the house was for sleeping only, that we would spend the rest of our hours outside, as if the heat could absolve us, cook away the bits of dirt left under our nails from where we dug Farouk’s grave beneath a copse of birch trees near the creek that split the property. We voted on everything, down to what we would eat that night and who would prepare it. For a time, we were a tiny, perfect democracy, voting in bloc. The three of us were bound together in a way that felt like what I imagined marriage to be—a partnership of daily intimacies that gives those involved a sense of safety.

And so things went along steadily; I thought about Farouk less and less. And I found myself losing weight until one day I was slim and tan and no longer self-conscious around Jens and Anika, with their bodies like Rodin sculptures. Our days were slow, luxuriant. We wore only our underwear, it was too hot for anything else, and we swam naked in the salt-water pool. In the mornings, Jens sang, mostly American folk songs but sometimes solemn hymns in Latin, the melodies echoing down the cool stone corridors of the old farmhouse. I would watch Anika as she slept in the bed that we shared, every part of her body brown as a shelled nut except the triangle of her crotch and breasts. Beneath her thin cotton underwear, I could see the dark tuft of her pubic hair.

One morning, she awoke to Jens singing and told me that his mother had been a pop star in Denmark in the ‘60s. She kept her eyes closed as she spoke.

“I love his voice,” I said.

“I wish we could cast a spell on him and make him sing all day long.”

“Hmm,” I sighed in agreement.

Anika turned towards me, resting her head in the crook of her arm, her other arm stretched long against her hip.

“Caroline,” she said. “A name like a poem.”

“You think so? I’ve always found it boring.”

“Oh, no. It’s a royal name.” Her mouth turned up into a slow smile before she rolled close to me to place a pillow on my head. “I crown you Queen Caroline of the farm.” She kissed me on both cheeks. “The coronation,” she said, giggling. But then she grew sober. “You won’t leave me, will you?”

“Why would I want to leave? This is the happiest I’ve been in ages.”

“Me too,” she said, though her face remained drawn. “You’re my best friend. Did you know that?” I blushed wildly under her gaze, but when I tried to shift away, she took my hands, squeezing so hard that my finger bones had to rearrange themselves in her grip. “You hurt my feelings, Caroline. I tried to warn you.”

My ears buzzed with blood. I felt her hands hot against mine. This was intimacy. This was friendship.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You can trust me now. I promise.”

One evening, while Anika took her nightly walk through the woods, I found Jens in the cave. His legs were folded, his back to the door. He was sobbing, such a wretched sound coming from his perfect throat.

“Jens?” I asked. “Ça va?”

He turned to me, yanking his long hair behind an ear. “How do we get out of this mess?”  He held up the black-and-white photograph of the boxer. “I know his letters are arriving at the apartment in Aix, and he thinks I’m ignoring them.”

“It’ll be okay,” I said, but the words sounded hollow.

I thought of the people who might have remarked my absence. Marie-Noël, the elderly librarian. Perhaps my mother, though she expected only intermittent communication, as if France were unreachable as the moon. The chain-smoker. Really, though, everyone who mattered was here. It was early August now, my flight home slated for less than a week away. The ticket was back in Aix, and I’d made no plans to retrieve it.

“She’s always been too impulsive,” Jens said. “I told her to leave you alone in there. The truth was, we knew you had a boyfriend. We followed you two around town. It was our little game.”

“What? For how long?”

“Every day.”

I was stunned, and flattered. All this time, I thought Anika wanted nothing to do with me, yet there she was, stalking me through the streets of Aix.

“But why?”

“She was obsessed with the fact that you were dating an Arab. When you’d kiss, she’d squeeze my wrist.”

“She was jealous?

“No, for God’s sake, Caroline.” He sighed. “She must have seen his car outside. I was so far gone, I didn’t realize what she was doing. I was trying to calm her down, she’d been hysterical all night, but I thought it was just a bad trip. I went to the bathroom, and…” He took my hand, and I noticed he was trembling. “Acid is supposed to make you lose your ego; only Anika could take it and become a more concentrated version of herself.”

“I know, Jens. I know. It was the acid. We’ve been over it. We’ve talked through the whole thing.”

“But it wasn’t,” he cried out, eyes sparking. “It wasn’t. She has something in her… all her father’s bullshit, all her life…”  He stood up and I followed suit.

“Jens, I don’t want to go back,” I said, placing a hand on his forearm. He was making me nervous. “We can’t go back. We have to stay here, for Anika’s sake. You’re her oldest friend, you have a responsibility to her.”

“My family stopped associating with them after the last election. We couldn’t stomach it. But I loved her so much…”

“Exactly,” I said. “You love her. And she loves you. Did you realize that? How much she adores you?”

To my relief, his voice softened, and he slumped back down on the floor.

“She used to be so sensitive, she could hardly walk down the street, like her skin wasn’t enough protection from the world. So I’d hold her hand and we’d go walking. We were fourteen or fifteen. Everything we saw was remarkable. I suppose everyone feels that way when they’re young.”

He craned his neck to look up at the hundreds of wine bottles tucked neatly into their earthen cubbies.

“I feel that way here,” I said.

He looked bemused. “Speaking of love…”

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“She can be very seductive when she wants to be.”

“You can’t just slot these feelings into a category,” I protested. “I thought you of all people would understand.”

“Because I’m gay?” He smirked.

“Stop it, Jens. Please.”

“Be careful, Caro. We can’t protect her forever. I have to consider my future. You should, too.”

“But we’re part of it now. We’re accessories, or whatever.”

I waited for him to protest, but he only shook his head. He started biting his nails, a bad habit he had picked up on the farm. I allowed myself to fall forward on my forearms and roll to the side so my back pressed against his long thigh. I brought my knees up to my chest. Jens moved his long pianist’s fingers up and down my arm, sending lightning bolts zapping beneath my skin.

It was dark now, the window of the cave empty of its weak twilight. The door creaked open, and Anika came in. I thought she would be angry at finding Jens and I like this, but instead, she sat down next to me and put her mouth to my forehead. I closed my eyes, and above me, I heard the sloppy noise of their kiss. There, I thought. All better. He loved me, she loved him, I loved her, we loved each other. In the darkness, her silver bracelet flashed. I reached up and unfastened it, then secured the bracelet around my wrist. It fit beautifully.

The next day, I was occupied with reorganizing the Henrieks’ library. I’d read through most of their French and English books and decided that, for my convenience, I would shelve the books according to their language, not alphabetically, as they had done. When Jens saw what I was doing, he shook his head.

“Caroline, this is not our house. They’re coming back. We’ll have to leave sometime.”

“I know you miss the boxer, Jens,” I said calmly. “But do I need to remind you that I also lost love this summer?” I didn’t take pleasure in reminding him of this; I did it solely for the good of our group. “Farouk is gone, but as long as we have each other, I am willing to let him lie beneath those birch trees.” I paused to let my words settle with him. “You gave her the acid, and we all hauled the body down to the car.” He nodded—I thought in agreement—and disappeared into the kitchen.

But late that night, Jens left the farm. He hitchhiked to Lyon, where he gave police the address and drew a rudimentary map of where they could find the body. In exchange for his cooperation with the investigation, he was given a light sentence, a few months’ probation. He never disputed my version of events, not during interrogations or on the witness stand. I suppose that was his attempt to prove he hadn’t entirely forsaken his former best friend. After the sentencing came down, he wrote me a letter asking why I lied. I never wrote back. Not out of anger, but out of pity. That he wasn’t able to appreciate the gift of Anika’s love. That he had never been able to. I’m proud to be able to say now that I’m the best friend she ever had. I don’t think even Jens would dispute it. But here’s the thing: A woman like Anika belongs in the world. Me, I’m fine in here. I have my Discman and books. My memories of the farm are better and more vivid than any life I could’ve made for myself, anyway.

After Anika served her sentence (two years for aiding a fugitive—me), she wrote every week, as promised. Within the year, though, the letters stopped, except for a wedding announcement, letter-pressed on thick paper the color of bone china. It contained a formal portrait of her with the bridegroom, who was handsome in a smug, moneyed way. I hung the photograph above my bed, though my heart sings with jealousy every time I look at it. He’s wearing a uniform, complete with sword and scabbard. Royalty, maybe, or a sub-stratum approaching royalty. Anika’s face is serene, radiating an unblemished pleasure, her blue eyes depthless pools of gratitude. Thank you, thank you, thank you, they say, silently, eternally.


Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016