and other maladies
A note from the author
A small book of short stories and essays on the darker side of love, viewed from many angles: the self-love of a prostitute, a middle-aged woman who returns to an unhappy marriage after twenty years to nurse her dying husband, disillusion and gender betrayal under the elms of a prestigious university… but all is not lost, for there is beauty too, even in the darkest heart of love.
Yours in love, the good kind!
© Nina-Gai Till 2013
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Nina-Gai Till © 2013
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people either living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
To those I have loved, to those I have lost, and
to those who are yet to enter my heart.
Arsenic and Old Dreams 1
Boxes and Boxes 4
Double Trouble 7
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover 9
The Centre of the World 14
If Looks Could Kill 16
Just Desserts 18
New York, New York 21
The Night Bird 25
Lily of the Night 30
Why I Went, Now I’m Back 33
I had a dream last night, the strangest dream. We were sitting together, beside the pool, talking about your mother. You turned around to smile at me and I noticed you had no teeth. What do you think that means? We swam together but the water was milk and as we were drying ourselves, you handed me a small Japanese pot-bellied pig.
I suppose living together can do that to you, you know, make you have bad dreams. It’s not as if I ate anything bizarre before I went to bed. Well, only you, but that doesn’t count. Sometimes I used to try to imagine us together in fifty years, surrounded by our kids and grandkids. Do you think we’ll make it? There are so many divorces these days. I don’t want to be another statistic.
When you asked me to marry you, I never imagined we’d end up like this. I always thought marriage was the beginning of a life. Now I have the impression mine is over. Did you like the potato pie I made tonight? It’s a recipe I found in one of those old journals we discovered when we ripped up the linoleum in the kitchen. Imagine that: sixty year old potato pie, like those hundred year old eggs the Chinese do, covered in mud and arsenic. Don’t worry, there was no arsenic in your dinner. A little pepper, some Oregano, but no arsenic. Funny, arsenicum albus is what the homeopath gave me to cure my anxiety. Little sugary balls of arsenic. Yum, yum.
You never seem to have dreams, do you? You sleep the sleep of the just, wake at seven, clear and fresh. I’ve grown accustomed to making your coffee with sugar, just right, while you shave. I never take anything myself, not until after you’ve gone. I suppose the little peck you give me as you put on your coat as you head out the door is a blessing. Most wives don’t get any kiss goodbye.
If it’s Tuesday I must remember to go and get the dry-cleaning. Your drycleaning. I never seem to wear anything worth the extra care.
I know you want to wear your grey suit tomorrow night. What sort of a dinner is it? A professional dinner. I don’t really mind staying at home, although if I had a car I might just go to the movies. Alone? Well, I don’t seem to have any friends of my own, now that I’m married. Not that it matters. Like you told me, married people only need each other.
Anyway, it’s a moot point, I know you prefer that I don’t drive. Please don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll find something to do. All those cupboards under the sink need cleaning. Sometimes I think if I had a baby, my life would be happier. Someone to love, a little person to watch over. But babies are not for us, are they? I’m not angry that we can’t have any, and I do understand why you don’t want to adopt. An adopted baby is never the same as one of your own, I quite agree.
Of course I don’t reproach you for not having told me you were sterile until after the wedding, even though you knew all I ever wanted to be was a mother. It’s not your fault, I know. And you’re right: as long as I’ve got you to look after, I have a purpose. And like I said, I’ve got heaps to do, I’ve been wanting to attack those cupboards for ages. The ones under the sink, where we keep the plant food and bleach, the methylated spirits and that little box of arsenic you bought to kill the rats. Arsenic. I watched those rats. It must be a terrible way to die.
My eldest daughter has a thing for unicorns. She loves them. It’s not just a childish fixation. She’s always adored them, and now that she’s older, she not only collects them in every shape and form, she also has become a font of unicorn lore. It’s uncanny but some days she even looks like a unicorn. Minus the horn, of course.
When I first decided to move, I figured the most awful part would be saying goodbye to all the things I couldn’t take with me: the roses on the trellis against the back garden wall, the place next to the fridge in the kitchen where our initials are carved, surrounded by a large heart.
We’ve had some happy times here, you and me. It seems strange to even think of waking up elsewhere. Do you remember that time we invited Jean-Michel and Valerie, and we stayed up telling ghost stories all night, just like kids. And the fabulous dinner party, the one we held for your father’s sixtieth birthday. Foie gras, the leg of New Zealand lamb, and the Chateau Talbot 1962, so round and long in the mouth. A real family occasion. He must miss you, your Dad. You were always so close.
Wow, I feel quite teary at the idea of leaving this house, our dear little house. We’ve put so much work into it, so much of ourselves. Especially the garden. Old Mrs Merriweather from up the back commented on our “jardin d’amour” only yesterday. I gave her some of the oranges – a whole onion sack full – and I’ve still got too many left over. Maybe I’ll give them to the kindergarten. I don’t really have the courage to make any more conserves this year. Especially not with the move and all. There’s just too much to be done, all those boxes to be packed and you know, leaving a place that’s been special is emotionally quite stressful. So many memories.
I suppose the movers will be coming soon. I really don’t know how they’re going to move all those boxes. Did you realise there are twelve cartons of books alone? And all the kitchen stuff, including the apple jam I made, left over from last Spring. I don’t think you liked my apple jam. I never said anything but I was rather hurt that you were so mean about it in front of Marie and Claire, not to mention at the local fair when I came in third, only third. I know it was a joke and I was probably being too sensitive, just like always. Never mind. Never mind. There are five cartons of bits and pieces, and I’ve put all your workshop stuff out for the Salvation Army. I hope that’s OK. No, not all, in fact. I kept the circular saw and that ecological machine thing you use to shred all the old newspapers and cardboard. Wow, it really has a kick to it. Much more efficient than my mincer.
Oh, that’s the door. Must be the movers. I hope they’re feeling strong. Are you sure you’re comfortable now? I really must close the top. I wouldn’t want you to fall out and get broken. Say good bye darling, to our little house.
Hello, hello, come in, yes this way. Apart from the furniture? Thirty six boxes. No, no, they’re pretty well packed. But please be careful with those two there, they’re quite fragile, all my conserves and patés. I often win prizes you know, at the local fair, for my conserves. My husband? No, he died recently. That’s why I’m moving
I heard the funniest thing on the radio this morning: 3% of French men lead a double life. Three whole percent! That's one million eight hundred thousand men out there with two homes, two wives, two families, two wardrobes and two income tax returns. When I heard that, I was half envious. A double life - that must mean double fun. And double trouble.
I could never get away with it, of course. When would I have the time? And then, people know me. Ah, look, they’d say, there’s Doctor Mitchel’s wife. I wonder what she’s doing here. And the children. What on earth would they think if they knew their mother, the very same one who has cookies and milk waiting every afternoon, their calm, comfortable mother was out leading a double life? But then I suppose that’s the point of double life – the children wouldn’t know.
Anyway, there’s not much use thinking about it, even if I could get away with it. And you know, I think I could. After all, people believe what they want to believe. Do you recall that time I went to Belgium for the afternoon, just for a break, and didn’t come back until four in the morning? No one had the slightest idea, even though I missed a Parents and Citizens meeting for the first time in ten years, even though I wasn’t home for dinner and the nanny had to cook. They all just assumed I was off doing some great, responsible thing.
And remember the time I picked up a man in the English Bar of the Plaza Athénè? I’d just gone in to take a drink, somewhere between an errand for the clinic and picking up the kids. Mike, that’s what he said his name was, although who knows. Tall blond Mike who asked me “how much for some French?”
I thought he was asking about champagne at first, and then it dawned on me and I told him, without even hesitating, mille francs. He paid too. Fancy that, one thousand francs for something I do anyhow.
A double life, yes, I must admit, the idea is tempting. I could be two entirely different people. Mrs Mitchel, the local doctor’s wife. Plumpish, a little dowdy, fortyish. Nice pink and gold glasses and ever so discreet. The kind of woman you can complain about your cheating husband or unplanned pregnancy and know she’ll take it to the grave. Not much of a sense of humour though. And those shoes she wears, Gucci flats in constant dark green, no flair at all.
Then there’s Suzanna, wild green eyes, great figure for those frothy little skirts and tailored blazers she wears. Positively voluptuous. And you should see her in jeans, what an arse! She’s a real riot, that woman, although I wouldn’t leave her alone with my husband. Spits them up and chews them out faster than you can say hello.
Well, I suppose if I ever I despair of this plain, old life I lead, I could just try it. Another husband, another life. Live a little dangerously, have a little fun. Double life, double trouble.
There must be fifty ways to leave your lover: just slip out the back Jack, making no plans Stan, no need to be coy Roy, just listen to me…
The traffic around me is chaos and the electric bandeau above my head reads 15 kilometres of bumper-to-bumper. I’m not going anywhere and the radio is playing hits from another time and place. The Seventies are alive. There is a motorcyclist ahead, he whizzes carefully by the almost stationary cars and I envy him his cool freedom.
There’s one of those chaleurs today, a breathy, musty sort of heat which gives rise to a humid anxiety. Not a lot one can do against the pressures of such heavy heat. I open my shirt another button and switch the fan to the highest level, sending new gusts of burning air across the dashboard.
The song is still playing and it takes me back to the casual joys of university days. I remember the mad rounds of laughter and the Semper humour of the Political Students’ Club. Drinking submarines – beer with a shot glass of drambuie submerged – one on top of the other, until we simply dispensed with the beer and continued with drambuie shots. Occasionally an argument would dissolve into simple innuendo and two by two, we would quit our beliefs for the fierce lovemaking of undergraduates. Rarely would anything be taken from these arrangements, and never, ever did we toy with the bourgeois temptation of love.
There was one exception, one member of our little band to break the code. I remember him well. Very well indeed. Geoffery Jones. Serious lad, one of our more committed members. It was he who threw the first eggs at the Prime Minister when he was receiving his honorary law degree.
I’ll never forget, just after the mid-semester break of our second year, he went home to visit his parents. I didn’t recognize him when he came back: gone was the spotty red complexion, he seemed more assured and mature. We all assumed it was the combination early nights and wholesome food that gave our Geoffery his sudden advantage. One important evening, he stunned us with his foresight and comprehensiveness regarding the Student Power legislation and its archaic rule that automatically elects the opposition leader as president in case of expiation or other disqualification of the elected. His campaign promise, he orated, was the Westminster system and the real value of the vote! After dispensing with his avant-propos cigarette and stained coffee mug, he was unanimously declared leader of our band of righteous politicos. We, who considered conventional power-giving an anathema to the soul, elected Geoffery Jones.
But like all things human, it was Geoffery who led us to defeat. The night of the Semper Distemper elections, when the President of the student union was to be elected; we hosted – a middle class concept but someone had to buy the drinks – a pre-election consensus party. Not that we were trying to buy anyone’s vote; we just figured it alcohol was the best way to get our message across. Serious in the extreme, we held hands and sang old Irish union songs until the last of the votes had been collected. Triumph that night underlined our downfall: it was our beloved Geoffery who was elected to the title role.
Deep into the burnished morning we celebrated, cosseting his victory as if it were our child. Occasionally I would notice his smile cracking around the edges like dry brittle plaster. Once I saw him come back inside, furtive like a small animal. The cat that stole the cream.
By five o’clock the party was in embers and those few remaining decided to take a freshening walk around the campus lake. We had somehow forgotten our hero, or rather, imagined him off with some girl, self-congratulatory sex. Fit for a hero. It was Michelle who stumbled onto the two boys.
Geoffery was naked and curled tenderly around the sex of David, another law under-graduate.
They seemed to be in some deep sleep and later we all agreed: our first assumption had been that they were stoned. I think we were all too shocked to see our Geoffery, with a boy, to even think further. When the police told us the suicide had been planned well in advance, and that the poison had to have been taken on an empty stomach, at least six hours before, we still didn’t get it. Only Karen had the presence of mind to remind us that we’d better warn the new President. I don’t think anyone else noticed her crying, but I did, because I was crying too. Not because I’d loved him. No, not at all.
There is a glory to be found in the sweat of the masses. Watch the ancient Jewish men, skulking off to steam out the tensions of a hard week, to purify the soul for Shabat. How many gallons of tears from the skin are washed away in sympathy?
The association of perspiration and glory is ageless, and sits equally as well in the biblical mineral baths of the Romans as in our steel and glass monuments to everlasting youth and beauty. It is an age-old wisdom, ever appropriate to our liquid anxieties.
These are the high-minded paths my thoughts tread as I pound away. The Stepmaster is my counterpart in survival, and each metre gained, each flight of stairs mounted puts me one step ahead: of middle age, of mediocracy, of the younger, prettier version of me bending over not more than a stretched arm away from you. The other machines call my name too: the Rower, with its sharks and helicopters, the Powerbike, all panoramic views from the Tour de France. I am hopelessly lost in an amusement gallery, dedicated to the glory of the corps humain. The scent lingers, the body of man.
But beyond these video games for cardiac junkies, there are other, more wistful approaches. Musculation. Body-building: drawing the sinews of pride into the brush strokes of perfection. The vehemence demanded, the forced intake and controlled exhalation.
I pass from one machine to the next. Pectorals, thirty kilograms, five times twenty good solid pumps, as my breasts firm and take hold like oysters on a rock. There is a mirror next to the upper body trapeze and I watch with no small pride as my triceps, those elegant, sexy strings that reach behind the shoulder blades, contract and lengthen. Biceps, the upper and lower abdomen muscle groups, gluteus maximus – each one undergoes its own particular rigour.
The best, I save for last. If I take any pleasure in the preceding exercises, the inner thigh work-out is the bump and grind of the iron circuit. The magnetic pull of forty kilograms against my knees, cold hard metal forcing me to bend the way it wants. It would be perverse to call this sexual but then again, I see from your eyes that it pleases you. To see me opened forcibly, the steel bars and inhuman weights an intricate torture machine, conceived by you, that I may be open to you. I fight back, of course, against this infernal pressure to split my body in two. Does this raise your blood pressure even more, make your heart beat even faster? And if someone, something must win? If the simple pursuit of glory and the triumph of sweat became a lustful intrusion? Would you like that?
I think you would.
After the first time we made love I knew I had no longer to see you. If not, it would be like an unformed scar, a raw wound: either I keep picking at it or else I leave it aired and alone, to heal.
Of course, the resolution was easier made than done. Every time the telephone rang, I knew it was you. The degree of disappointment I felt when it was not was devastating. Strong enough – just – to avoid calling you, my consolation is to gaze at your phone number and imagine composing the numbers. You’d answer and my heart would rise to my throat.
I’d form some light repartee, some official reason to call, say hi. You’d laugh, and then ask “So, when can we see each other?” But even in my fantasies, I never get past this point.
Recognising the pattern. What I’m feeling for you is as memorable as the pain suffered during a high school dance, when he’s discovered in the corner, kissing another. It’s logic and I know, really, we’ve nothing in common. Except that we’re married. To different people.
I think I know why I am crazed for you. When touched at the heart of my being, the feminine element is placed in disorder. What I mean to say is that, until the moment you put your head in my lap, your tongue in me, I was your equivalent, lost in the masculine world of power. But just that single touch, and I am lost to the earthy, feminine desires. Before you touched me, I was cool, laying down conditions. After, I was in love.
Does this come from the female bearing of all there is to be in being a woman? Did men feel this way until this particular sexual act became so common place? There is a fundamental difference between being invaded, allowing someone else to enter us, and that essential homage to the cradle of humanity.
When you embraced me there, with such humility, I loved you. And now, I miss you.
If looks could kill, I’d have died a thousand deaths. I didn’t think I’d said anything too dangerous; after all, there’s no way anyone would ever suspect. But when you looked at me like that, I had the impression you were really upset.
I don’t know why. But we can talk about it later if you want. You will come by, won’t you? I love to sit there in our little love nest, waiting for you – who’d have ever thought we could have found something so cheap. My husband still thinks it’s a charity donation, that extra 1200 Francs a month. What time do you think you’ll be by? I’ve got to be dressed and out by 8.30pm, I’m supposed to be at the hairdressers and any later won’t be plausible.
What’s that? You’ll be bringing a friend? What sort of friend? Oh, I get it, someone to play a little game with us. No? Not that sort of friend? Oh well, anyway, how should I be dressed? A little silk teddy and my eyes blindfolded? Definitely stockings. I think there’s still a bottle of champagne from last week, the one we didn’t have time to drink. You won’t have time to drink it today either? I get the feeling you’re really angry at me, are you? I didn’t mean to infer anything to your wife, I was just playing, that’s all. Just joking. I don’t know why you’d worry, she’d never suspect.
So what time are you coming over? And what about your friend, who is it again? Three glasses for the champagne? It’s your wife, oh, I see, no, no, seven-thirty is fine.
Women are bitchier than men. It’s a fact. But it doesn’t worry me too much because I do believe that in the long run, every one gets their just desserts.
Take my husband’s ex-girlfriend, for instance. Katherine. A real cow if ever there was one. She was probably attractive once, perhaps even beautiful, but age, two kids and the unhappiness of her lot have served to blunt her edges. Mike tells me that when they lived together, she had a fabulous body. I think it must have been a long time ago.
I suppose I should feel sorry for her, really, show a little charity. After all, I’m young, beautiful, intelligent and rich. And to ice the cake, I’m the wife of the man she’d give her left breast to have. Still, with regard to Katherine, I don’t feel the least inclination to be kind.
It all began when we arrived at her place for l’apèritif. Already stewed, she was a slovenly queen in a grubby suburban palace. Her court was composed of two red-eyed, snotty nosed brats, each clamouring to make a worse impression than the other, her mother a fine example of the damage twenty odd extra years can do, and another couple, Alain and Sylvia.
I suppose we might have passed an amicable evening: the Indian takeway restaurant, though new, was quite clever and everyone agreed the curries and tandoori were fine, very tasty indeed. Quite reasonably, I had been apprehensive of this dinner. Every time I see Katherine, I swear it will be the last. As if blowsy and drunk wasn’t enough, she always alternates needling me with attempting to seduce my husband. Small, poison tipped darts would fly my way, genre “Gosh, you’re such a tiny little thing, it’s a wonder you can find clothes to fit you. Absolutely no figure at all, how does Mike find anything to hold onto at night?”
She would continue, “Yes, when we lived together, he had a real woman in his bed. I bet you miss me, don’t you, Mikey”. On and on, she’d go, nasty, malicious, just a cow.
My husband is very kind and after each sally, holds me in his arms and explains to me that I have no need to worry, no need to care. Katherine, he tells me, is simply very unhappy: her marriage is in trouble, her kids are always sick, she has no time or money for herself. Poor Katherine. And secretly, I smile and think to myself: Katherine’s unhappy? Good.
But last night, she went too far. Right throughout dinner, a barbed wire tongue. For all of the first course, her hand lay in my husband’s lap as if this were the most natural place for her hand to be. Giggling and making snide comments with Sylvia while Alan looked at me, embarrassment and pity. My smile never came unstuck once and my mother would have been truly proud of my graciousness. I behaved like a lady. It was only when my darling husband started to develop what were evidently agonising pains in the stomach, did I loose my grip. Poor darling, I wanted to call an ambulance at once, but you know how Mike is, he’s a doctor and in matters of health you can’t convince him to do anything. Perhaps I could have stopped him when he took the Bufferin. I probably should have told him that even extra-strength aspirin wasn’t much use against ground glass and Bombay ice-cream in the stomach and would only aggravate the ulcerated lining.
Of course it grieves me to think I’ll be alone, but I remember what my mother used to do when my sister and I would fight over one of our porcelain dolls or perhaps the elegant china tea set: she’d simply put it away until we could promise not to fight.
I think you’ll agree, it was the only thing to do.
Married, two kids. Normal, happy life. A little too much to do, not so much time to myself these days. Ron tries to help, I suppose. I never thought it would be easy but no one warned me it would be this hard. The eyes gazing back at me in the bathroom mirror look a little bovine. Happy-to-be-led, follow-the easy way eyes. The clothes are dowdy, screaming inattention. The weight of centuries seems etched on my bearing and another onlooker might have the sudden impulse to put this vision to bed and rock her gently in arms until her face softens with sleep.
By midday, a series of professional boredoms have assailed me and I abandon the office with a slight giddiness and the underpinings of guilt, neither of which are merited. Free in the car, on my way to do the grocery shopping – I always do it on Friday afternoons, so as to cope with all many and varied desires my family can manifest over a weekend – I have a burst of impulse: bugger the shopping, I’m going to go home to eat lunch and watch a soap opera.
Home, as everyone knows, is the worst place to try to relax. As soon as I walk in the door, the odours of things to do line up like troops for the battle. “The breakfast dishes,” calls the kitchen seductively. “The unmade beds,” chime the bedrooms. “Three loads of shirts,” the washing basket cackles, and the iron does a merry little dance. The oven door opens and closes as if it were a giant moray eel.
I race to the bedroom, barricading my thoughts against the incessant demands, the fruitless maintenance of my daily life, and somehow make it to the wardrobe. Exchanging my heels for boots, I grab a heavy black parka, my travelling wallet (passport, foreign money, travellers’ cheques). A pen to scribble a note on the back of a telephone bill.
Tried to get you on the phone but no answer. I’m out tonight, drinks with the girls from work. Love you, give the children kisses for me and tell them that Mummy will kiss them when she comes home.
The message itself is not enough to raise suspicion, but then, another husband might be surprised at the suddenness of his organised wife’s gesture.
I leap in the car. The tank is three-quarter full. 12.40 pm. I stop at the tobacconist, take cigarettes and on some odd ancient impulse, one packet of rolling papers. Until I leave the shop, I have no set agenda, except the desire to avoid words. Driving north, feeling a slight amazement at the idea of playing hooky. Periphèrique north or south? Lille or Lyon. Well, Lille, why not? At Lille, I pass the indications to Charles de Gaulle airport, but feel only the itch to drive, just a bit more. There’s a toll section – I take the ticket and decide to cross a border. Playing hooky seriously incites a change of countries.
In Belgium, the motorists are dumb and vague. There seems to be heaps of traffic and I have no map. After Brussels, where there are too many people, I decide to keep rolling. One hour later I stop to take gas and note with mild surprise that I am at the Belgium-Netherlands border. Two borders in one single afternoon away from work. Five hours driving and six hundred kilometres. Just on an impulse. I feel proud and not a little insane.
It is almost 6.30pm as I pull into downtown Amsterdam. It’s years and years since I’ve been here and yet the town feels like an old shoe. I park the car and wander through the people hurrying home in the first winter chills. At seven, the mad flurry of workers is over and I feel a little alone and hungry. The blinking neon of a Best Western Hotel calls to me. Do you have a credit card Madame? Yes, yes, and a key is placed in my hand. Thank you, no luggage.
A few basic niceties will be useful: toothbrush, toiletries, clean underwear. The few shops open late in the Galleria are the most interesting. A slinky silk jacket, old-looking new Levis, a pair of suede-lined cowboy boots from Spain and some rather luscious underwear; a bottle of a perfume rich with Gardenias. There’s no way I can afford this, which only heightens the fun. I stop with all my purchases in a café brun, and buy six joints, ready rolled. I smoke two sur place. What did Jack Keroac call dope? Tea. I smile and realise I’ve gone one step further, that I’m sure as hell on the road. Or is this the road to hell?
Arriving back at the hotel, there is a sudden weakness at the idea of having successfully run away. A soothing bath and then, with purpose, I sleep the sleep of the honest.
The next day, I stroll, liberty in my step. There is no bias in my direction; I simply follow my own paths. Once I stop to buy an old radio, its Bakelite battered and missing its knobs. The Lufthansa office draws me close. Nine hundred Guilders to go to New York, one way, first class. I’ll take one, leaving this afternoon.
At the hotel, I put the last joint in my handbag and go out to find the car. In the airport short-term parking, I put a note on the windscreen asking someone, anyone to call my husband, that he might collect the car.
Checking into the first class lounge had always been a fantasy. And now here I am, helping myself to the artfully displayed crudities and free champagne, wondering if I’ll be warm enough on the other side of the Atlantic.
The New York Plaza had seemed tempting enough in the in-flight magazine but now I somehow have the impression that the suite is just a bit too obvious. Still, living dangerously is the order of the day. I order room service champagne, brush my teeth and start looking through Sunday’s job pages.
Monday afternoon, irresponsibility reigns. Feeling the weight of hotel life impose, I visit the local car rental place. Anything in convertible, please. Do you have a credit card? Yes, yes, of course! Just south of Wisconsin, three days later, I have the vague feeling that something, somewhere is calling me. That feeling is stronger by mid-afternoon and when I stop to take a piece of blueberry cheesecake and a cajun coffee, I have the impression that time is running out. Braving the grimy truckers and their hotfoot tattoos, I wing it to the public phone box in the corner. Avoiding the grease marks of the previous user, I carefully compose a number that used to be my own. The voice of my child answers the phone. I speak over the strange lump in my voice:
“Hello Mathilde, it’s Mummy calling. How are you?”
She rambles back, the nonsensical burble of almost-there words and I hear her father, my husband, rustle the telephone away from her.
I feel the heat behind my eyes, red flames licking, burning, curling the edges of all that I had ever known and loved, and gently, carefully, I place the receiver back on its hook.
Post-coital tristesse. It’s one of those states of soul which cannot be avoided, or even begrudged.
Yesterday, I had the first affair of my married life. It was considerably the best sex I’d ever had although it grieves me that for once, I was not in control. But that is beside the point. Let me tell you about my partner, for all of two hours, and how I came to know him.
Maybe it’s better to start at the beginning. I read a book once, where the principal character was a self-titled “night hunter”. He cruised the darkness in search of night birds or more precisely, partners in whom he could find a measured respect for the crushing need they shared. The writer profiled these night birds as non-obvious, and in my experience, it is true to say the best fucks are those you would suspect the least.
Which brings me back to my partner, X. No names, because discretion in our game is the better part of valour. He is young, this boy, although older in years than me. A past bad boy, trouble for his parents: fast friends and motor bikes, leading to drugs and crashes. He’s one of the cool kids, but seems a little naive to have ever gone too far. He’s the younger brother of my husband’s best friend and an integrated part of this group of friends we form: husbands, wives, buddies, mates. This will be the essence of my story, for our little history merely underlines the undercurrents of such closeness. And parallels the great cliché: complacency breeds strange desires.
There is a tradition in our group, to host a spectacle for those precious to us on the occasion of great events. This time we will fete the thirtieth year of Marianne, nice girl, an ambassador’s daughter with impeccable manners and a tortured soul hidden under thirty odd extra kilos. She is our anchor; for our band, the centrifuge of our love. It is to her we owe our allegiance and we will strive, amongst us all, to create something grand, a memorable soirée. A special night, in the company of good friends. And within this boundary, I will guard my secret and learn my lesson.
In the past three weeks, we have held many small, casual dinners to plan this great party and show. In the event of one of these evenings, eyes met across the room and the message read underlined a danger, subtle but dark. As is our wont in such circumstances, we two good friends brushed it off, unspoken words like ashes in the wind: too many Kirs and the intimacy of a shared joint.
Over the course of other dinners, a knee crossed lifting a skirt one inch too high, or the slick hard pleasure of pubis, clandestine rubbing in the kitchen, underlines the danger of intrusions.
And then one night, the evening of the event, it goes too far. I see him watching me dancing with another girl and know he wants to be here, in between us. We sneak out to share a joint and far from the unknowing eyes of our spouses, we exchange tongues and genitals in wet lust and smokey desire. Is it that my husband is so unaware of me, us, that he does not feel the static electricity of my need? Or is it knowing but not feeling, for it is often simpler to ignore the lightening and guard the status quo. My young man remarks, in one of the lulls in our passion: “It’s a crime. He does not take care of you”. And he is not without reason.
We have nothing yet to regret, even at the end of this night when certain boundaries have been passed and lust has been defined.
“I’ll call you”, he promises me.
“A très bientôt”, I reply.
True to his cock, he calls Monday morning. “Alors, your place, à midi?”
I answer yes, of course, and pray that he will not arrive.
I open the door and let him in, feeling as awkward as a sixteen year old and yet wet, and hot, ready to have this man now. We kiss and I fear his passion will be bruising and unskilled. We stop, smoke a cigarette to dull the anguish, and re-commence. I am surprised that he is big, blunt – rough but surprisingly skilled. Very skilled. We play: thrust, shove and push, slide and move. Inventive ideas and hard feelings, he is good, this young man of mine. Shall I list the poses? I taste him against my throat, and feel the small rose of his arse seize my finger. His balls rise and fall with the lengths of my tongue. He lays me against the base of the lounge and raises my hips to his face. His tongue knows its route and seems genuinely to enjoy its journey. Small caresses linger and my clitoris grows needy, and then he enters me, his tongue hard against the walls and moving with comfort in my liquids.
But he stops short and pulls me down. “Just a little,” I beg, “just a touch.” As we look on, he slides a little and comes back. It is me who gives in, succumbs and pushes down hard. Harder. And so we fuck, sliding up and down, gently grinding round.
We move through all the posts: against the wall, à cheval, on a chair, flat on our backs, like all manner of animals copulating. No consideration for beauty or rhythm: only riding with this overwhelming need to jam against one another. We pause from time to time and relish the knowledge that we are the bêtes noir of our peculiar malady.
It takes a long time for us to achieve our closes, once, twice, three times. His pleasure – “jouir”, in French, so close to the verb “to play” – is a visual event and I see with something as perverse as pride, when he explodes onto my breasts, his hand rising and falling. He comes again, half in and out of me and later I taste him and bathe in his screams.
I heard a phrase this morning on the radio: “Comment parler de ma violence à l’amour que je viens de violer?^^1^^” I feel a sympathy with this line that is beyond the considerations of guilt. This is my cry for help. It is the last step before danger reigns. I am not willing to die for literary fame or the possibility of grinding the flesh off my bones on the stone of lust. Am I going crazy? Is insane desire the script of madness? Perhaps this lust is the simple alignment of my hormones, or the cry for freedom is a form of marriage bound. Did I choose this man so as not to have to confront the ideology of my own beliefs in his other couples?
But we are not finished, and this young man of mine is intuitive. He listens to the heart of my sex and responds. I am on top and can feel him searching out the lines to cross, the frontiers to franchise. As he enters me, he looks further into my soul than any other living soul has dared. I dare not look back, for fear that he will see the truth.
There is no aftermath and we dress, after our bath. I am touched by his innocence: combined with his courage he offers a rare and respectable personage, somewhat removed from the callous youth of my fantasties. We smoke quietly and I reflect on a young man whose love knows no bounds and whose gender, while sure, is the one-eyed snake looking for shelter. He has been brave and yet somehow is judicious, not indiscriminate. A remarkable boy and yet I must not romanticize.
There are some things made for life, made for the instant. To push beyond the limits will destroy the possibility of happiness. I listen to the old soul and decide to be a frontier for my love.
My booker gives me the usual details over the phone: “He’s young, Asian, must have plenty of dough because he’s staying in the Intercontinental – a suite – and he’s paying in cash. Sounds quite young, actually.”
Dressing, I glance at my watch: quarter to nine. Fifteen minutes to go there, three quarters of an hour to do the job, and another fifteen to come home. With any luck, I’ll be back before the end of the film. That is the trouble with this job, most of the calls come around nine-ish, so I always miss the middle of films. Still, a young kid means not too much work. With any luck, I’ll be home and showered by ten thirty.
There is always a tense minute when you knock on the door of a strange hotel room. I look at the shoes. Another girl once told me police wear brown shoes. The kid who opens the door is wearing shorts and a surf tee-shirt. He’s not even old enough to shave, although with Asians you can’t always tell.
“Hi, I’m Susie. From Margo’s Escorts.”
He smiles, a child’s grin, and invites me in. There’s a bottle of champagne in an ice-bucket, otherwise it’s a young boy’s room. Stuff strewn everywhere, two surfboards propped up against the wall. Lots of expensive luggage. They do like their Louis Vuitton.
We start talking: is he on holidays, what has he seen, does he like the place? Actually, it’s me rambling on, making the kind of small talk that puts customers at ease. Suddenly he asks, “Can you take your clothes off?” It’s more of a command.
“Sure”, I say, and go to take off my dress. He walks over to a low-slung marble coffee table.
“Wait, stand on here.”
What is normally a fluid step into the real part of the job becomes awkward, pseudo-sexy. Who is this kid to be giving me orders? It dawns on me that he’s just trying to gain the upper hand; after all, it takes some balls to order a hooker, even more to go through with it. Something in me stirs and I think, “Let’s give this kid his money’s worth.”
I walk up to him, real close, close enough even to smell his breath. Scotch, definitely toothpaste and the undecayed scent of youth. He looks at me, directly in the eyes and I see he is afraid. Good. I turn, near enough that my arse brushes the front of his pants.
“Do my zip.”
He must struggle with the translation because he waits a minute before he does anything. I slip out of my dress and casually walk over to the closet, take out a hanger. Nothing more telling than leaving a hotel in crushed clothes. I can feel his eyes watching me and know that even my younger customers get a kick out of black suspenders and stockings.
When I turn around, he’s on the bed, naked except for his Calvin Kleins. I walk to the bed, put my foot up near his face and slowly, slowly start to roll down my stocking. It occurs to me that the kid is really getting good value – by now I would have been pushing for a finish and even trying to decide how the film would end. I go to start on the second stocking and sneak a look at the kid’s face. If I’m any judge of character, the kid will blow by the time I get to my bra.
Without any warning he grabs my left ankle and pulls me down to the bed. He mutters something indistinct and starts clawing at my lace knickers. Well, I was wrong: clearly he’s going to fuck me and then it will be finished. Usually I try to sort them out with oral sex, saves on wear and tear; not to worry, with the young ones, intercourse is usually pretty quick. But the kid has other ideas: he buries his face in my pussy and starts licking me, long tender strokes. The kid’s been around and me, the ultimate professional, I come without a second’s hesitation. I don’t quite know what to do next or even what I’m supposed to say.
“Roll over”, the kid orders and I start to protest; there are some things I don’t do these days, for love or money. He pushes me over and starts to rub himself up and down my back, groaning for all the world. I feel the sickly spurt and his agonised groan and sneak a look at my watch. It’s 10.15. I wonder if the hero has rescued the maiden yet.
Walking up the front path, I remembered so clearly why I left. The box hedges, so trimmed and present in their perfection. My very life as well: well-kept house, well-kept body, well-kept life. Everything so manicured, so gently but firmly shaped, the well-meaning or occasionally daring burst away from conformity quickly and ruthlessly hacked or filed away to bland stupor. I remember so very clearly the day I walked down those stairs, out that door. The day was so clear, so bright, so full of possible joy that I simply let myself be led. Down the garden path and far away. Not a moment of intent. Just willed into being by the sky, the sun, the sound of the late morning traffic as it charted its way north, south, east, west, every direction I wanted to be.
I knew that every step was madness and yet the exigency led me on. I could not have resisted for a second, and knowing this freed me from the conventional worries. No purse, no money, no coat, no cares. I was already gone, only my body was following. Hunger, thirst, desire were all one and nothing and I just knew that if I kept moving, my hunger would be filled, my thirst slaked and my body filled. Just keep moving, away, away.
Walking up the front path after all these years, twenty and more, I wondered if my fear was justified. How can the past have a hold on the future when so much separates us? I was me then, I am me now, only more so. With age comes wisdom, and bravado too. I never was one to bet on the variables. But this was sheer folly, the rich man’s kind and I am far from sure that I have the most rudimentary tools of modern warfare. In the end, I just keep walking, moving up, moving up. Now only metres lie between me and the past, me and the future. I am in the moment, I know I am here but I would give a large part of my soul to be anywhere else at all.
When he came looking for me last June, I could tell he was shocked to see the squalor I had so readily embraced. How could the desire for self be stronger than the walls of possession that he so readily offered? I could see him doing the equations: brown rice versus dinner at La Caprice, the brown dirndl flapping madly in the winds of my madness and he clutching firmly but with no small measure of desperation at his Barbour trench coat. I saw him glance at my ring finger and felt his breath settle as he saw the ring still in place. If he hadn’t been so obvious, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed but even now I feel the seeping rage of grief as I remember him grasping at symbols instead of reaching for me.
I was seventeen when I married him with the blessing of just about every person known to me. His friends spent the evening gloating and imagining me naked, my family and his gloated over the sensible merger of two of their most suitable assets and while he behaved impeccably at every turn, I simply obeyed. I walked, turned, smiled and nodded on command. Drinks found their way to my trembling hands, I drank. I do not recall saying yes, I do, I will. All I knew is all I know now: life would always be thus, me two steps behind, nobly vague and always appropriate.
It seemed for a long while as if life was one great choreographed dream and I an occasional player. It was only the greater tragedies that intruded: the babies lost, a womb so fixed with fear that not even the hardiest sperm could serve in its harshly infertile landlay. The sudden and violent death of the adolescent son of the gardener, a youth so vibrantly filled with hope that he seemed lit from within. Genocide and mass murders, dreadful car crashes or lunatics with switchblades – none of these touched me but every year or so I would be dashed to the ground, smote with the tenebrous realisation that nothing could ever be good for me again.
And here I am, making my way back with an outward show of confidence and less oxygen in my lungs than is required to breathe. I know that in less seconds than it takes to make a life, I will raise my hand and knock, once, twice, firmly as is my right, and ask to be let in. I am not totally unexpected; he must have been waiting for me for years. I will knock, he will open and we will start a conversation we never really finished two decades ago. I am ambivalent but resolute. I have nothing to lose. All I can do is hold on. It’s only the breathing that is difficult but then, here, it always has been. I hope and pray the words come easily.
When he opens the door it’s as if the gods have chosen to play a careless joke. His face is frozen, a ravaged glacier of repressed emotion. His sour sweat and bloody eyes cause me to step back and yet my heart leaps forward, compassion to the fore. The mother instinct to heal all wounds rises to bind even this gash, the wound that is and was me and mine.
We stand quietly as the lead ballast of the years drags us down. He is inches away and yet I could be at the edge of a crevice, peering down. I do not recognise the mania that so clearly rules and ruses the Cartesian blandness that was home to him. He hesitates, offers a hand, withdraws and settles for a soft sigh that could be disillusionment or acceptance. I follow him into the dark shanks of the house, step though careless piles of detritus that is the chronological archaeology of a life misused. The place smells of cats, their putrid ammonia a call to reveille or at least to the late Indian summer that makes the world beyond sing.
He putters, for all the world an ancient member of a long forgotten tribe. It is hard to imagine that once we lived a life, if not together, then not entirely apart. My mind recalls his youthful skin, the milky pallor playing sky to the coarse black hairs of his boyish chest. Now he stands concave, bowed by lack of will and indecision. He offers me Scotch, I accept without comment although it has been more than a lifetime since the bitter taste of alcohol has haunted my palate. I pose the glass on a small table I do not recognise, a table that has surely played out other scenes of love and abuse. He lights a small cigarillo, its fetid odour strangely coherent with the dank rancidity of the house.
We sit in silence and slowly the darkness rolls over us, providing a comfort I had yet to imagine. We were the last members of a cavalry long since departed; our duty to hold out holds us upright and yet only the slightest breeze would send us – and the silence that entombs us – crashing to the ground. Hours later, or perhaps minutes, and a bell chimes an indiscriminate message that conveys the passing of time. Is it time to eat, to sleep? Does this house rob us of all anima, so that we exist only in some perverted parallel universe where only the blackest of bodily functions is admitted? He stirs restlessly in his chair and I, fearing drowning, rise up to speak. The words I have turned so long in my head leave my mouth with a violence that astounds me. It is my voice, it is me. As I speak, I can feel the impact of each syllable as it attains it’s target, bulls-eye, direct.
I say it out loud and although I know it will kill me surely as the cancer that has wound its sinuous death dance through every bone and organ of his defeated body, I say it true.
“Will you let me nurse you to the end, here?”
He nods, just once, and strangely I am free.
1 How to speak of my violence to the love I have just violated?