My Lalla continued telling me stories to keep me calmly at the house, which was how my father liked it. I liked to listen to her, but she simply liked to know that I was close to her. She would come take me away from my friends, and other times when I was with girls, under the pretext that a boy was not supposed to play with girls. What I liked about her stories was that she would tell them again and repeat the parts that made me happy, like her story about the French family she used to work for. I used to accompany her, she told me, when I was really little. It was actually her boss who had insisted that she bring me with her. “You were a perfect little boy, all I had to do was put you on an armchair and you wouldn’t budge,” she would repeat to me while stroking my cheek. I would spend my time immobile on that armchair, watching Noé, the French boy she was governess to, and with whom I would sometimes play. These are her memories, onto which I imposed my own images. Noé was the same age as me. Once in a while, I got the impression that she brought up her time at that family’s home just to speak as much as she liked about Noé, with a lot of love. He was like her second son, she would say each time she had her nose buried in her things and she came upon the photo of him, but I was sure that she cleaned out her closet expressly to unpack all her memories.
I also adopted the habit, to the extent that I became familiar with the odor specific to that photo and those postcards. My Lalla was antsy for me to learn French, she even begged me, so that I could respond to the postcards she received and write long letters to that family. At the time, I said to myself that she would have to wait until I was competent, but that even then the French family would be disappointed in my revolting, illegible handwriting and she would be better off having it typed up by a professional writer. That way the family would spend just two minutes reading it instead of taking two and a half years to decipher each symbol of my hand. But soon after, I realized that I was also antsy to be able to write a real letter in French, and in my own handwriting, which would lend it a more sensual and physical proximity. It made me happy to be able to do that for her, I could tell it made her enormously happy, and it made me happy, too, out of pure egotism, to be able to touch that family indirectly, and like her, it was Noé I was interested in. I liked to see her get emotional, tell me about her life and how good she had felt in that family.
I grew to love sitting near her, and little by little I saw that I could permit myself to touch that photo and those postcards, hold Noé in my hands. Something in me stopped me from bluntly staring while I was opposite her, as she pretended to tidy away her clothes and her few traditional dresses that she never wore because they were too beautiful and made from silk. I was too uncomfortable on my knees, I couldn’t find a comfortable position in which to stare at Noé the way I wanted. I saw her groan, too, and lose herself in her tidying and in her dresses that were so silky they slipped from her hands and fell to her knees. Her demeanor didn’t really help and I was starting to feel something new toward her. All of a sudden I was timid and too polite, I felt like these were her things and I couldn’t access them. I was embarrassed and it was difficult for me because I was starting to care for Noé as much as she did. She could look at him as much as she liked from morning till night and even put his photo under her pillow and sleep with it. I escaped by lying down on the ground, leaving her behind me in her silk, to gaze at Noé in peace. And then one day she imitated me and lay down with all her weight—and that position was the last thing I expected from her, sly and smiling and sweet—to once more comment on the photograph, tear it from my hands to describe Noé, who was only four years old, completely naked in his plastic inflatable pool on the garden lawn. She mentioned, as she did every time, that she was the one who used to spray him with water and play with him.
That posture became a kind of daily reflex for me, but never did my gesture of throwing myself on Noé and staring at him agitate my Lalla. Not at all, on the contrary, it was also an opportunity for her to caress that photo. Little by little, she no longer needed to start with Noé’s parents, pretending to think of them so she could then talk about Noé as she loved and knew to do. The ritual kept me at her side; Noé had become our thing in common. I lost myself in our feelings for Noé, I didn’t know if our love for him was alike, I knew only that I wanted for him to be there at my side, his world and his family, his French way of life enticed me. All the empty space from having lost my little baby brother I projected onto Noé, but no matter the kind of love or how I saw it, the important thing was that it enveloped me in a sweet joy. I learned to love him and I am grateful to my Lalla for that. Once in a while, I was sad that he was no longer there, in Morocco, he had left too young, before I had even had the time to cling to a single memory of him, to bind us together. His family’s life consisted of roaming the world from one French embassy to another. But often I found happiness in the simple fact that he was in the world at the same time as me, far away, but at least we were on the same earth.
The images on the television screens at the Hitachi store as I went back and forth between my house and school only intensified the desire that bound me to Noé. France, that word and that language sounded good in my ear. I transposed my fixation for all of that onto the photo of Noé. I started to miss him so much that it became physical, I wanted more than that photo and my Lalla’s stories, but, as sad as I was, I enjoyed living in the proximity of that lack that grew as I did. It was my whole life, and I learned to grow up alongside it.
I went to look for the photo, cautiously, trying not to upset the neat arrangement of all that silk that could slip so easily. I became selfish, monopolizing those moments for myself alone, without my Lalla. I loved to stare at him, smile at him, his face with the blue, narrow eyes that saw only me, smiled at me too, and that skin, so white. I was afraid that my Lalla would suspect my obsession with that photo; discovering me rifling through her things made her angry.
It took a long time for me to hatch the idea that would make me happier than anything. I was thirteen years old, it was time to steal. But not really steal the photo, I wanted her to have it too. A few streets from my house, there was a professional photographer whose store window was plastered with photos. I liked to look at them, and after pressing my nose to the glass so often he was used to me and my visits, which were pointless in his eyes. I liked to go to the back of the studio while he was busy with customers at the counter. I didn’t turn on the lights, not because I was afraid of getting caught, but because the giant posters of Tahiti at sunset and Paris with its super tall tower sufficiently illuminated my view. I adored the decor, that was where people went to be photographed and they liked it too, evidently, since they seemed so happy to be there. At first, I thought that those people were displayed in the window because they were beautiful and I didn’t understand why there were also ugly people. One day I asked him, and he replied that they were the people who didn’t have the money to pick up their photos, and he thought it was a good punishment, to evoke shame in them and their families, especially the young girls, immediately seizing the opportunity to warn me that the day I found myself in that room, the same thing would happen to me if I didn’t pay. That was when I came up with the idea for Noé and me.
I took the photo of Noé and one of me at the same age. I placed them on the counter. The photographer was appalled by my acute assurance of what I wanted to do with the two photos. All he did was stare at me and listen to my explanations. I neglected to say that the blonder boy wasn’t my brother since we didn’t look much alike. I didn’t know if he figured it out or if he would agree to do the work, he stayed silent for so long. I wanted for him to reproduce the two photos as one, with me next to Noé. I had to go back two days later to pick them up and I took care to save up the money. My fear was that my Lalla would feel the need to look at Noé at some point during the two days. I didn’t let her out of my sight, I did everything possible to keep her busy until I could put the photo back in her closet.
In the finished photo, Noé and I were each in a circle. I could finally have him on me at all times, in my school bag, from morning till night and from night till morning. When I held him in my two hands, lying on my bed, I loved to extend my arms and then bring the photo right up close to my face and stare straight into it until I had tears in my eyes. From then on, I always went to bed happy, no more of that fear of the night, no more need for my door to stay open so that I could see my father’s bedroom on the other side of the patio on the first floor. I used to be scared of the sky that I could see from my bed, crammed with stars. Once my eyes were closed, my father would come to turn out the light and close the door, and he would cover me back up because I would make my covers fall off the bed with all my tossing and turning. Finally he came up with an idea that made him laugh: he put a big heavy carpet on top of my sheet and covers, so that only my head would move. The first night, it kept me from losing my sheets but it also kept me from sleeping; I was used to him coming to my room every night. I was afraid that he was sick of getting up for me, but over time I understood that he was simply worried I would be cold. I was no longer afraid of “jinn,” the demons. I used to torture myself praying to God to chase it all from my imagination but I still didn’t know how to recite the prayers of the Koran, I would just say, “Oh God protect me.” I thought my prayer wasn’t valid, that I couldn’t find the necessary words that could only be found in the Koran. I felt reassured with the photo of Noé because it took my mind off of it, even if I slept impossible hours.
My grandparents’ visits had become less and less frequent ever since my dad had refused to do as they had advised him, which was to kick out my Lalla if he cared about them. My father protected her. He would drive me to the countryside to see my grandparents during school vacations. I had less and less desire to go there, especially for the summer break when it was too hot, but also because I wanted to be a part of Lalla’s clan, she had become like a memento of Noé for me. I told myself that it would be better for me to love my Lalla more, more than my father did. I loved her, and my love for Noé increased. To be able to say to myself simply that I loved Noé without it seeming insane, to hold the photo, kiss it, and tell him: “Good night, Noé,” was already an enormous pleasure, I adored that and I would have adored a thousand other situations if he had really been next to me.
More and more I loved to plunge myself into that atmosphere and travel through all those screens. I could only barely hear the sound through the store window. France and the French were everywhere for me, and none of those boys transfixed like I was in front of the TV screens suspected that I had more reason than them to love that universe that linked me even more to Noé. It was a sensation that I had never imagined could exist. I started to project my relationship with him into the long term: I would carry his photo on me as much as I could, I would love him for a very long time. At least for the near future, a few months, a few years, and as long as I could, I was prepared to love him. I had never thought that the other boys I saw on the TV screens could remind me of Noé, or that their silhouettes could provoke thoughts of him in me, until the day when I absolutely had to enter the Hitachi store, so strong was the image, I was beckoned inside to better hear and see.
A little boy with a bare chest, completely disheveled, was waking up on the screen. I am incapable of saying what it was that stirred me to such an extent, it was simply that I saw him holding a bowl of hot chocolate that a woman had just given to him. It was clearly a movie. The chocolate overflowed his lips. One thing was for sure: nothing I had ever seen before had struck me in this way. I understood in that moment that his morning was not like mine. I thought of my drink, mint tea, with bread drenched in melted butter, and I felt like they summed up my culture; I was sick of mint tea. A few days later, I got up at dawn, before my Lalla prepared my breakfast. I had not planned out the moment when I would find myself face to face with her. How to ask her, explain to her that this morning I wanted hot chocolate? I didn’t think it would be that strange for her, surely she had already prepared that for little Noé, and imagining it made me emotional. Seeing the expression she made, I quickly changed my mind and settled for my mint tea without her having to say a word. She was looking at me like I was a Martian. And I couldn’t get the image of the boy with the hot chocolate out of my head. Everything reminded me of Noé, and the only thing that differentiated him from me was hot chocolate.
From Chocolat Chaud. © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1998. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.