“Why are you so sad tonight?” “Because I’m so close to you, my lovely, and yet so far away.”
The young woman was not expecting this sort of answer. Above all, she was thrown by the endearment.
Her pale face reddened, right up to the roots of her hair. Had Muhsin not spoken with such sincerity, had she not seen that strange fire in his eyes, she might have judged him impertinent.
How had he disarmed her? With his eyes, perhaps. His voice, and its ardent intimations. Perhaps she had genuinely wished to put him in his place, and had faltered because she could not bring herself to believe her ears. How could this be? That she had wished to protest, and then failed: it made no sense.
It made no sense, but it had happened. This stranger she hardly knew was taking liberties, addressing her as if they were intimates already, and confessing sadness at the distance between them.
Celile made to raise her eyebrows, to let him know that his impudence dismayed her, only to find herself unable to dismiss his brazen attempt at a compliment. For Muhsin’s whispered words had penetrated her with the force of the south wind, breathing fire on her ears and her neck, setting her entire body alight. Her heart was racing, her temples pounding. Her ears rang with his words.
“I must be drunk!” she told herself. Certainly she’d overindulged this evening—she couldn’t even name most of the drinks she’d downed. And now she felt weightless. Freed of flesh, blood, and bones, beyond the grip of the material world, and afloat in a heavenly peace.
She had felt this way before, when she was tiny. This much she knew. But the details still eluded her.
All she could remember was a little pink bedstead. At her side as she lay there was a woman whose face she could not recall. But she carried the scent of lilacs. She was wearing a dress with a lace collar and lace sleeves. Nestled in her hair was a star made of sparkling stones. She was stroking Celile’s forehead, with a hand as warm and soft as a petal. She was, Celile knew, the most beautiful woman in the world, and the most fantastical. Perhaps she was not a woman at all, but an angel. Her angel mother. Hadn’t they all called her that, afterwards? Her mother had been an angel. And then one day she had flown back up to heaven to join the others.
Sewn into the pink netting that hung over her bed was a flock of tiny blue birds. Celile had watched them rise and fall while that silken petal of a hand stroked her forehead, drawing her into the spell of sated sleep and oblivion.
But now it had returned to her—that heavenly peace, that same sublime happiness. Oh, to make it hers! To open her eyes, open them wide, and prolong this bliss! But she could not will it. She was a child again, a happy child drifting off into sleep’s velvet embrace, sinking through a night lit up by tiny stars. Now they sparkled gold and silver, now there were flashes of blue and red. And now there were no colors at all. There was only that hand on her forehead, as warm and soft as a petal, and the scent of lilacs. Happily she surrendered to it. She drank it in.
At their table this evening, there had been a bouquet of lilacs. All night she had felt its fragrance brushing against her temples, her forehead, her ears, her cheeks. Soft as a hand’s caress, balmy as a spring breeze. Each gust of scent bringing with it this promise, this dream of another world, where all was peaceful, all was bliss.
A silence reigned there. It was as still as moonlit night. Not so much as a rustling leaf. Voicelessly it had called to her, breaching her defenses and reeling her in.
He was looking at her. She might have looked away— smiled even, as if to imply that he could not have been serious. She chose instead to return his gaze, nakedly, guilelessly, no more able to disguise her feelings than a child.
It was as if they were alone on that terrace—had this nightclub entirely to themselves. She looked into his eyes as if there were no other eyes upon her, as if she detected in his eyes a secret, a message no one else could see or read.
It was late, very late. Sprinkled across the velvet night as if by a gentle hand, the lights on the opposite shore cast their reflections across the sea. Each a golden path, beckoning.
The music was still playing and the dance floor still full of whirling couples.
Celile was among them. In her pink tulle dress she resembled a bouquet of fully bloomed roses.
The black sleeve of Muhsin’s tuxedo resembled the ribbon wrapped around the dress.
Celile had the slim and agile body of a woman who had never borne a child. She was tall, but even so—this man made her feel so small. She reached up only as far as his chest. She could feel his heart beating.
They were playing a soulful old tango now. It calmed her nerves, even as it took her captive.
Its strange lament filled her with a longing for life, but also, at the same time, for death. The melody was simple, but impossible to resist.
Muhsin tightened his grip around her waist, and then he made it tighter still.
“Celile,” he murmured. “Celile, do you understand?” He was calling her by her name, and yes, Celile did understand, perfectly. Could it be true?
A stranger—a man she hardly knew!
A man she’d met on only four previous occasions—five at most . . . While she . . .
This thing she understood perfectly—she saw no need to shy away. It did not frighten her in the least. Even though it was happening for the first time—not once since her wedding day had she looked into the eyes of a strange man and felt herself succumbing.
No . . . No, this could not be true. And yet it was. “I haven’t offended you, have I?” What a thought!
What a lovely spring night this was, what a lovely tango, and how happy she was to be alive!
She felt such joy at this moment, this beautiful dream come true. So much joy that she wanted to die.
But here she was, fully alive and giving herself over to the tango’s dark pleasures.
As if possessed. “I definitely had too much to drink tonight,” she told herself. And then: “What possessed me to drink so very much?”
Never in her life had she been beset by such mad and overwhelming desire. Until tonight, her heart had been her own, and safely guarded. How then to explain this sudden capitulation? How very sudden it had been, too. Could this really be her? Who was this woman who had surrendered herself so rashly to a passion she could not name?
Passion. Until this moment she had only ever seen what it did to others. Never had it occurred to her that it might feel like this. And now, for the first time, she was discovering the dark recesses of her own heart, and the torments and agonies it harbored. “If I ever drink this much again . . .”
“Celile. I love you.”
“Celile, I’m sick with love for you. Mad with love.”
She struggled now to raise her eyebrows, to adopt a tone that was neither too serious nor too light, to ask “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” Instead, she chided herself: the right thing would have been to shame him, to refuse to take him seriously, to imply that if she did choose to take him seriously it would be to censure him. Was anything less to be expected from a woman of her standing?
This was what she would say to him. What she wished to say to him. But no. She could not bring herself to hurt him with a single harsh word. She couldn’t find a single word to say to him. And so, taking courage from her silence and her acquiescent gaze, he again tightened his grip, pressing her hard against his chest, as forcefully as if he wished to snap her slender waist in two.
And she, who had always held her head high, whose dignity had never failed her, melded her body to his with the ease of a prostitute, letting her head fall until it rested on his chest and his fast-beating heart.
Yes, she was leaning on his heart. Weighed down and spent, and oh so happy. Their two hands pressed into each other, first softly and then harder, and harder still, until Celile’s long, slender fingers curled to send her sharp pink nails into Muhsin’s skin.
Neither spoke. Silently they danced to the tango, swirling inside their private dream.
Not a word did they share. What need was there for words? What would have been the point? Her body had spoken for her. With her every gesture, she had not just accepted his love. She had declared herself ready to return it. No, not once during her ten years of marriage, or, for that matter, her entire life, had she ever, ever, opened herself to such an advance, or allowed a man to treat her so outrageously.
Even inside the guarded privacy of marriage, Celile had kept her distance and her reserve.
But here she was, doing what she had never done before in her thirty-five years on this earth: allowing herself to be swept away by a soulful tango, abandoning her body to the man who held her in his arms, and with that body promising him everything, holding nothing back.
Shamelessly . . .
As shamelessly as a bar girl who did this for a living.
Casting modesty to the wind. Without a thought for what people might think.
Without remorse. For she had done no wrong. She felt cleansed, as if by prayer.
“Should we think of heading home, Celile?”
In the light of the little table lamp, Ahmet’s face had taken on the cast of a stranger.
Startled, as if from a deep sleep, Celile stared at her husband as if she were seeing him for the first time.
While he had no inkling of the turmoil inside her. She gave him her usual impassive smile.
“You’re looking a bit pale, Celile. You must be tired. It’s very late, after all.”
Yes, she was tired. She longed to bury her head in her pillow, to close her eyes and breathe in the scent of lilac, feel the caress of a warm hand on her forehead and drift off into sleep.
Nuri and Müjde were tired, too. They’d all had great fun, and a great deal to drink. They’d danced until the early hours.
And now they could feel the first hints of a headache.
They were ready to call it a night and head for bed.
Except for Muhsin. What was he thinking? Was he tired?
She couldn’t read his expression.
Was he sad? Yes, perhaps.
There were deep lines on his face, on either side of his mouth. From sleepless nights, perhaps.
But his eyes . . . They were wakeful. Not a hint of fatigue in them.
To the contrary. They bore down on Celile and her husband as fiercely as a wolf preparing to tear apart his prey.
But he said nothing to delay them. Not a single word. As they left the table, the two women walked ahead. “I’m exhausted,” Müjde said. “It’s almost dawn, after all.” Celile started at her uncomprehendingly. Mechanically, she agreed.
“Yes, you’re right. It’s almost dawn.”
As they stepped into the second car, Ahmet turned to Muhsin with a smile.
“My wife,” he said. “She usually can’t bear going out at night. She prefers to sit at home. But these days, she’s happy to stay out till dawn without once asking me to take her home!”
Caught unawares, Celile lost her balance, only to be saved by Ahmet’s steadying arm.
The beautiful evening was over. With a single remark, her husband had pulled her back into the void.
Ahmet said no more. Nor was there any need. Had he brandished a talisman he could not have done more to break the spell. The dream was lost. The sparkling lights had vanished, taking with them the scent of lilacs.
How strange to find herself sitting in the back of this car, between these two men. How strange her husband had been acting, all evening long.
If she hadn’t felt so uneasy, she might have laughed it off. She decided her husband must be as drunk as she was. He was speaking now. Gabbling.
“Yes, it’s a miracle,” he was saying. “And you, Muhsin Bey—you’re the miracle worker. That excursion in your yacht, these past two late nights. These were your doing. You’ve brought my homebody wife out of hiding. You’re introducing her to life.”
As the nightclub lights paled beneath the lightening sky, Celile watched Muhsin watching her husband. She could not know what he was thinking, but the murderous contempt she saw in his eyes served only to diminish Ahmet in her own.
This grieved her.
No . . . No, this had not been a beautiful evening after all. In the space of a moment, it had ceased to be that childhood dream come true. She was back in the real world.
Everything was real. To one side, her husband, who’d put on so much weight over the past two years; to the other side, this proud and haughty stranger.
A stranger through and through. But only moments earlier, this young woman had wantonly given herself over to his strong embrace and his mad desires. She had welcomed his insolent suggestions, thrilled to his warm breath on her temples and her ears.
So now, what did this stranger think of her and her husband?
It was dark inside the car . . .
It followed its headlights down the asphalt road.
There she was, her heavy white-silk coat, sitting between these two men.
On her left there was the dark sea, here and there reflecting the lights along the shore. Yes, all was dark.
Again she was plunged in darkness, and again she had changed.
Her thoughts darker than ever.
On her right was her silent husband. He was entirely still, his fat arm wrapped around hers.
On her left, Muhsin was also silent. Behind them, the lights of the nightclub were fading into the night sky, and with them the known world.
She forgot the argument she’d been having with herself.
Her mind was cleansed of remorse.
And now, at this very moment, a feverish hand took hold of her left arm. Gently, very gently, Muhsin stroked her bare skin, which was as soft as velvet. As far up as her elbows, as far down as her slender wrists.
And Celile’s mind went blank. It was as if she had for-gotten that her husband was still holding her other arm. Once again, she surrendered to the thrill of a pleasure she had not known until tonight, while her heart basked in that long-lost tranquility.
She wished that this road would never end, that the lights would never come back on again, that no one would ever utter another word, that nothing ever break this silence. But the car kept speeding down the road.