Tangier, July 1955
The presence of Enrique’s things was testament to his absence: bags piled up in a corner containing the clothes he hadn’t taken with him; an ashtray full of American cigarette butts that Thelma refused to empty; the wooden bookshelf buckling under the weight of old books; filing cabinets containing folders full of papers written in his hand, bearing his signature; a shoebox with no shoes; and Enrique’s favorite record, Angel Eyes, by Matt Dennis, which she listened to over and over, like a disease she’d caught that made her sicker each day. The incurable disease of memory. Thelma should have thrown all his things onto a pyre and watched them burn, should have painted the walls a different color, should have at least opened the bedroom window to clear the air. But doing any of those things would have meant accepting that this time Enrique’s absence was definitive, that this wasn’t like other times, when he’d leave but then come back. And she wasn’t ready for that. She still needed to mourn him, curse him, hate him, and forgive him.
Every night, she stayed up until late, and like a monkey repeating a game it’s been taught without understanding the rules, dragged herself to the bathroom to stroke Enrique’s shaving brush or lovingly put on his bathrobe, to use his comb on her hair, brush her teeth with his brush and tune in to the radio station he listened to while getting dressed in the morning. Sometimes, Thelma simply sat on the toilet staring vacantly at a white tile until her legs went numb and her eyes hurt from not blinking. She’d be overcome, then, by the sense that it was all unreal and distant. When she came to and realized that he wasn’t coming back, she would scream and break things, scratch her face so that the pain could be expressed via skin under nails and stinging flesh, because that was the only way to escape her living death.
Nothing changed her routine of abandonment. That night she sat on the edge of the bed and poured herself a generous tumbler of London 40. She was drunk in the usual way, a sick woman accustomed to her sickness. Though alcohol no longer helped her forget, at least it deadened the pain, and her thoughts dropped like pebbles onto the sandy bottom of her mind and lay there quietly, rocking gently in the emptiness. She stroked the dirty sheets she’d refused to change and relived the memory of Enrique, head against the pillow, cigarette in his right hand, glass of gin in the left, lightly clinking the ice cubes. This was a sign of his impatience, a way of saying Thelma wasn’t convincing enough in her fake orgasm as she masturbated for him.
“Fucking bastard,” she whispered, head lolling to one side, ashamed at the memory of how vile it had felt to be used that way. And yet she missed Enrique’s unequivocal expression, his ruthless green eyes that judged her with infuriating condescension, like a god judging its creations. When his brow furrowed in that withering look and he took his eyes off her, it was like Thelma no longer existed. Like she’d been expelled from his thoughts. And it was the worst thing in the world.
Gin in hand, Thelma went to the window. Day had not yet dawned and already the heat was oppressive.
Tangier was still there. As unrelenting as it had been in the Delacroix paintings her father collected in his London home, the ones that had made her love this land even before she was capable of imagining it. Wa fiki barakat allah, the air seemed to chant. That was the first Arabic she learned: Allah has brought us this blessing. Ramadan was coming to an end, and she could smell the aromas accompanying it: harira, the soup that broke the fast, and the sweet bread and dates eaten with it. In a few hours the hustle and bustle of the market would start up, and with it would come the scent of lamb, spices, and coffee in the old souk; the hotels and little shops would once again be filled with the to and fro of colored jellabas and slippers, European suits and leather shoes, all intersecting with no apparent friction.
Perhaps what she missed most were their Sunday walks through the medina, Enrique with his arm around her, looking so handsome and gallant in his Regular Forces Battalion uniform, a red tarbush on his head. Women would turn to look at him as he passed by on the street, a handsome Spanish captain with green eyes and dark hair, but she wasn’t jealous. On the contrary, she felt happy and proud.
When they’d first arrived as newlyweds in 1944, Tangier was unprejudiced, and they could visit their Moroccan friends, who lived in houses with roofs so low they had to bend down to get from one room to another. They soon made other friends, famous and important ones: Boulevard Pasteur tycoons, with their shady business deals; extravagant American painters and writers; Canadian, Australian, French, English, and Dutch adventurers looking to make a fresh start in a land where no one asked questions. It was all perfect, and no one thought it would stop being that way. They lived in the knowledge that happiness was fragile, but refused to accept its ephemeral nature and instead held on with both hands. Thelma was twenty-five, and Europe was at war. The moment she set foot in Tangier, she had the feeling she’d disembarked in an unsettling and dangerous world, but one full of incredible energy and passion. It was just what a pregnant English newlywed from a good family needed—to discover the exciting side of life. She was immediately seduced by the beautiful riads of Petite Place, the many cafés and the Mendoubia Gardens, where she spent entire afternoons sketching in her sketchbook, capturing faces she found exotic. She fell in love with everything she saw, touched or tasted, her senses surrendering to adventures at Malabata Beach, where nights lasted well into morning around the embers of a bonfire, smoke drifting up to a magnificent, all-encompassing black sky, eating fish tagine and listening to Jajouka music.
Eleven years later, where had that world gone? The sounds, flavors, and smells had vanished, and the streets that once beguiled her were now like a desiccated snake skin, something that once had been but no longer was. Religion, nationalism, politics, and mutual hatred had plundered the soul of the place that once belonged to everyone and no one. In the mornings, storefronts were covered in graffiti in support of Mohammed and annexation to an independent Alawite kingdom, as well as slogans full of hatred for the colonizers. Week by week the atmosphere became more stifling for Europeans. All of her friends were leaving, even those who’d held on until the end. And she would have to leave too; everybody was advising her to go. Tangier was no longer a safe place for a woman alone with an eleven-year-old daughter.
That very afternoon, Thelma had been paid a visit from the British consular secretary, an old-school diplomat and friend of her father’s who was careful with his words but unmistakable with their meaning. He was delivering a message from her father.
“You’ve still got a family in London willing to take you in, a home, an income, and friendships that have survived the distance, friends who would bring you back to the world you and your daughter belong in.”
Thelma had listened to her father’s words, spoken from this old diplomat’s mouth, with polite reserve. He couldn’t possibly understand that at thirty-five, Thelma was no longer the young woman who’d run away from the asphyxiating atmosphere of the old mansion. Her response was laconic and categorical.
“The world where my daughter and I belong no longer exists. There’s no place to go back to.”
She knew what she had to do, and had only been postponing it for one reason. That night she took the bottle of London and a glass and went up to the attic she once used as a studio. In one corner stood the easel, covered with a sheet. Gently, she pulled it off and uncovered the painting. Thelma took a slow walk around the easel, stepping back for perspective, and looked at it sidelong, as though fearing she’d ruin the portrait if she looked at it straight on.
This was her masterpiece. Thelma told herself that even Enrique, who had hotly forbidden her to paint this portrait, would have to acknowledge the talent and effort she’d put into it, harmoniously integrating the light of the landscape and shadows of the man’s young dark face. The model’s beauty was unquestionably masculine, rugged and at the same time haughty; Thelma had used the beach as a backdrop, and dressed the young man in a white gandoura robe. The effect of motion had turned out exceptionally well: the wind in the folds of his clothing, the waves dissolving into churning foam, the branches of a carob tree in a distant corner. The only thing not moving was the fierce expression on the model’s face: the stillness of his lips full of things about to be said, and a smile that was not an invitation to joy but a poorly healed scar. He looked so alive. “It’s all your fault,” she said, blaming the portrait and bringing the gin to her lips.
She should destroy it, now that she’d finally finished. Wasn’t that how exorcism worked? You got something out of your system, made it real and then let it go. But every time she tried, something stopped her; it was like a hand grabbed her wrist.
“Damn you!” she shouted, her hand shaking violently. The gin slipped from her fingers and the glass hit the floor, shattering. With a strange expression, Thelma observed her bare feet. A shard of glass had pierced her right arch, and blood trickled out from between her toes like a worm that knows where it’s headed. Wracked by sorrow, she bent double, then fell to the floor and curled into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest.
There was nothing else to do. She could surrender to immeasurable despair, each minute thick as oil, or put an end to the pain. There was no tone to the darkness, nothing to cling to, no more lies. Only death as a feeble reprieve, and also a cry for help and, ultimately, a kind of revenge. Death, only a few centimeters from life, one step away, a step she’d decided to take that night.
But she couldn’t do it alone. She couldn’t let Enrique have the final victory.