The first time she came was remarkably with someone else. He had been doing more or less the same thing for about a week when it happened and she was glad but as is the nature of such thresholds it became a due before she could remember it being any different. Few things blow you away. Though it was mysterious at first she soon had it in her own power. Once years later while she was visiting her home town they met again by chance in the street and he smiled the way people can do who have shared that experience and she felt she did the same but there was a delay before she was really aware of what it was they had in common and even then it was an arousal of original knowledge purified of any local content, abstract as the moment you learned to ride a bike or even to hold your breath underwater. He had one shoulder higher than the other; she noticed it more from behind.
When she was twenty-one she went to Paris on a university exchange and overstayed her visa. She was a science student but her choice of subjects had been impertinent from the beginning and she got in with a history student from Bordeaux and kept tagging along to his classes. Later perhaps it would seem like borrowed time but then it was natural and easy to keep seeing each other the way they did. He sublet a room in a large apartment in the north that belonged to a psychiatrist who only used it on the weekends, when the boy would leave Paris to visit his parents anyway and she would stay with a friend. They never spoke about what they were going to do in the future, not even individually. No one ever felt that he or she had to go out of his or her way to say something. An old acquaintance told her in an email that it was typical and she had as much in common with her origins as to think that was probably true and a bit worse than not worth saying. He might have thought the same thing if she had ever mentioned it to him. They took all their clothes off to make love on the sofa or on the floor almost as often as in bed. They tacitly discovered sodomy and both liked it. The greatest pleasure they took in talking then was just before penetration. Pas dans la fente.
Eventually her mother and father arrived on holiday with the barely disguised intention of bringing her home. They insisted almost immediately on taking them both out to dinner. He had, she was vaguely appalled to learn, excellent English. The day after she met her parents alone in a café near Saint-Germain-des-Prés where they had been shopping and her mother leant over the table, the ruff on her blouse brushing the tops of the glasses and said is he it, is he the reason darling, because I understand. She asked for their news. They had just bought a Restoration vase from a dealer between the café and the river but were not convinced. It might not suit anything, said her mother, but I thought well if it’s a mistake this is our only chance to make it. We had it sent to the hotel. I’ll show it to you if they haven’t packed it properly. Her father who had never been to Paris before had an agenda of his own, though she suspected it was serving him best as a way to appear to be keeping out of her mother’s. He had a startling amount of questions about the Deux Magots. In a few days he was going to have a birthday and her mother was planning to get him on a riverboat and surprise him. But you know, she confided, it gets exhausting. By nine o’clock we’re both kaput.
Clément suggested they invite her parents to the apartment and she could hardly think of a reason to say no. Her mother, whose experience of Parisian real estate had been a linen closet in the sixties, was disproportionately impressed, though she had had the situation explained to her. Coming over they had run into a march of sans papiers on the boulevard Barbès. On strike, said her mother, but they don’t work. They have no contracts. Her father wanted to know where Montmartre was. It’s up the hill, said Clément. We could go to the place du Tertre after dinner. They dodged the Egyptians playing deaf and mute on the steps to Sacré Cœur and almost all avoided the finger traps. Under a plaque commemorating the arrival of one Louis in the first Renault to climb the medieval byways to the summit of the holy mountain a man sat on a wooden crate before an old hat turned crown to the cobblestones, the sides collapsing outwards like the walls of Saint Pierre. Above his top lip he had drawn with a black oil crayon a moustache turned up a little at the edges and now he held an empty wine glass in one hand while he propped the other in the air as if around a bottle. He’ll pour, her father said, if you give him something. Another crowd worker in minstrel mode with a fishbowl balancing on his head and the African continent waxed in abstract on his shirt wheeled his kit and caboodle behind them as they waited for their crêpes to cook Au Pichet, turned out by his indoor counterpart in paper hat and blue apron as he muttered amiably in Arabic to an acquaintance at the window. Her parents thought of taking cooking classes. They left at the end of three weeks and gradually cut off her allowance.
Clément offered to help her get some bar work but she thought even for cash in hand she could find something better. Eventually she did take a job in a so-called Irish pub which she liked well enough but she kept looking and to supplement her income in the meantime she advertised for babysitting. Though there was not much money in babysitting either she found it easy to get and the question of her being illegal came up too infrequently to be a nuisance. Things began to turn with Clément without actually getting anywhere near sour. They endured a rather long chain of little repulsions before someone suggested she try finding her own place. She moved in with her friend as a first step but still spent a few nights a week in the apartment with Clément and they saw each other almost every weekday. When he invited her to Bordeaux she refused.
Her friend, who was an interpreter, happened to be out one afternoon when an irregular from the council rang the apartment and so she got a one-off job standing in at the eye clinic at the hospital Cochin for a Palestinian man and his son who spoke English but no French. The boy had an inflammation dans le fond de l’œil. In the bottom of your eye, she said. I mean in the back. Il est très rouge. I’m sorry Marina isn’t here, she could say it directly. His one good eye was streaked with the reflection of the neon light. Put your head in front of this, rest your chin there. Don’t blink. Ce sera un petit jet d’air. Ça gêne un peu mais ça ne fait pas mal. The doctor ordered X-rays and a blood test for the aetiology and prescribed drops to be reduced gradually over a certain number of days to prevent the inflammation from rebounding. Outside the chemist the boy’s father invited her to dinner to thank her for stepping in as she had. He was quite old to have a son that age. They were in Paris in transit waiting to hear about a job at the Qatar embassy in London and were living alone in a small studio in the eighteenth arrondissement, on the other side of Barbès, in the Goutte d’Or. The studio had a window facing the courtyard and behind the sofa bed a wall covered with tiles as in a bathroom. On top of the fridge there were two suitcases and on the floor a patterned matt made of plastic tubing of the kind that covers electrical wires. Under the coats hanging on the back of the door leading from the little passageway beside the kitchen it was possible to make out a crayon block figure drawing of a woman with two circles for breasts and a rectangle that might have been a skirt. There was a television that gave back nothing but the blue sky in the window until the footage from a news bulletin faded up in thin, shifting bands of colour that swam there as it were in the shallows of the screen until the static broke over crosswise and the image warped. It was early summer and above the hum of some other apartments and the sound of the knife in the kitchen the passerines were calling. It’s in the water, she thought she heard someone say out the window. Box me.
Ibrahim was not a bad cook in limited circumstances. They ate in front of the mute television and she explained how she had come to take the job and he told her there was a room in the building that would be available by the end of the week. The couple living there were moving into assisted housing like the family who had rented the place he and his son were in now. He knew how to get a hold of the landlord. She moved her things in on the weekend. She had been worried it might have been the narrow room on the bottom floor where the porter used to sit up for the long-dead world to come home at all hours and so she was pleased to discover it was a room under the roof. There was a folding spring bed like she had never seen before and a small table and a burner under the window. She felt relieved. If she opened her arms in the middle of the room it touched both angles of the ceiling. Sacré Cœur was a white flame on the horizon. She brought a boy from the pub home and his semen went up the ceiling. In the morning the heat was terrible and her head hurt. She let him fuck her from behind a few times but eventually the rhythm of his balls knocking against her thighs made her queasy so she had to stop. She’d forgotten how long it had been since she’d had a place of her own. How is your eye, she asked Ibrahim’s son on the stairs.
The same, he said.
When Clément got back from his parents’ she went to see him at the apartment.
She pretended to be curious to see how far his sunburn went. Unbutton it. You sunbathed naked, she asked.
You don’t do that in America.
Oh gee, she said drawing him with some chastity into her less tender sphincter. Still he was hard as a rock. She decided not to tell him about her new apartment. We have special beaches. Quoi que l’on dise d’Italiennes. Fluctuat nec mergitur, he murmured washing his hands in the bathroom afterwards, his red detumescence shrinking another degree from the cool porcelain. Ordure aimons, ordure nous assuit. Listen, she said, I forgot, I’m meant to see a friend for a concert. He met her gaze blankly in the mirror and nodded. Tomorrow, he said. Maybe.
She would buy her groceries on the rue Dejean behind the black market, then return with her laden bags to the street among the costume jewellery and fake brands and wigs laid out on altars made of cardboard boxes with a white cloth on the top. She liked to walk among these women, stolid between the men with pirate DVDs or belts looped the length of their arms or roaming in long overcoats with sunglasses and boxes of perfume at the tips of their fingers. Some wore cobalt eyeshadow and some leopard tights or Capri pants or skin-tight jeans and some plastic nails and there was much in the way of ballet slippers and blouses and many lashings of aureate tin and a tall bony woman who sold rings and earrings and bracelets that rolled around on her sheet like lollipops or sparkles from the sacred fire wore a Savannah sunhat and others wore wigs and others the scarf-do and some were bruised sometimes and to look at them moved her, it felt like something coming. Behind them the posters were an impasto. Bill Clinton en concert. Sans Toi, Je ne suis rien. Here come the angels, she thought, as the floruit at the far end of the street curved suddenly in on itself like a body of water before an open floodgate until tumbling over the mounting wrack of knocked-down cardboard boxes the whole market had swept her way and scattered in seconds down the crossroads. A policeman had recently been floored by a flowerpot falling Ciuriaci-style out a window but this was a routine affair. Later since she had nothing else to do she went onto the street to see if Rolo was doing his round. She would see him from the corner pulling the prophylactic green garbage bags from their metal rings and swinging them into the back of the truck one-handed, charming as usual. By the time he saw her she was inevitably agog. Why he always asked if she was free later was beyond her.
On the weekend they would go in his cousin’s van covered in spray-paint that literally said penis on one side in purple zigzag letters to the woods outside of Paris or right into the country and when they came back in the evening she felt quite expansive. She would meet Clément at the Gare du Nord and tell him she was in too good a mood to make love and in the morning when he rolled over and put his arms around her she was ready or would lick him until she was. They would get groceries together sometimes and afterwards order coffee in the Café de l’Hotêl de l’Univers that tended to put her in mind of a souk despite the decorated beige plates on the wall above the coffee machine with their natty hibiscus flowers. Faire l’amour avec une femme en chemise c’est savourer une orange sans l’éplucher. Les femmes comme les députés font leur fortune dans la chambre. They would separate there and she would walk in the direction of Marina’s to put him off the scent.
On the stairwell of her apartment building one evening she ran into Ibrahim and his son. How is your eye now, she asked. Emmetropic. She was invited back to dinner and found the flat had been rearranged with a little more care. She didn’t ask what the news from London was. Ibrahim said his son was having other health problems but saved the details. A Dutch wax cloth had been thrown over half the sofa and the boy’s homework lay confounded among the striated forms. He drummed his fingers on the plastic ruler and, staring at her, made what might have been an obscene gesture if it wasn’t pure abstraction. She told Ibrahim how glad she was to have the place and thanked him again for his help. The man nodded and said it was nothing. He took his horn-rimmed glasses off and looked out of the window. The summer, he said somewhat dreamily, was very close, but pleasant in the evening.
She offered to take out his son on occasion, for a couple of hours, to give him a break, for no charge. She said she was doing that kind of thing already with other people’s children. Ibrahim accepted gratefully and so she would collect the boy in the evenings after work sometimes and they would walk to the park at the end of the rue Richomme and watch the old men playing checkers on the rustic steel tables with blue and red bottlecaps or she would encourage him to play with the other children in the sandpit but his selfless and uncouth habit of simply sitting down to bask in their company was not a gesture they were ready for and meanwhile only cemented his eccentricity with a social value on his own scale.
After a weekend in the woods she found it could be nice now and then to amuse herself with a mildly degenerate member of the Comédie Française but she made sure to be home before dawn. From her window she watched it break red over the hill, then dropped in her clothes onto the bed. She would sleep into the business day while below, between the ungulate carcasses swung out of the meat trucks into the waiting arms of the rue Dejean butchers and the fish stalls, a man cast a handful of salt before a shopping caddy lined with a black garbage bag. To the relative calm of that preliminary hustle and bustle the steam escaping from the hellsmouth of the unwound opening advertised the first of freshly cooked corn cobs for sale. Gradually he joined in the solicitations of the market. Further on beneath the electric sign of the chemist the men selling single pieces of fruit from upturned cardboard boxes and the homeless getting drunk on vin de table had also found a way to exist unmolested under the celestial eye of the State until their time was up, and if there persisted disavowed in the twin neon snakes of the green cross a faith in more than medicine, there was, as Marina said, even a little Mamaloi on the weekend when the evangelicals bellowed manumission in tight-fitting shot suits. Pigeons bathed in the diamond bright stream of the gutter. Picking her way through this pastoral as she made for the pub in the late morning, she would choose a piece of official fruit from the grocer’s and if she didn’t trip over the insect-limbed cripple and send her tumbling, indifferently spraying her occult and manifest charity over the bloody cobblestones, into the applecart, she would take the time to enjoy it. There were moments she almost felt her mind disperse on the bright array like the sun in the manifold fontange of the racks hung from the fake hair shops with their buns and ponytails and other extensions, and if it hadn’t been the nature of the feeling to put her beyond recollection, she might before its influence faded have found herself asking how it all was going to end. A woman walked past in a pink béret.
Clément was violent! More violent at least than anything she had had the chance to be subject to. It was not the kind of violence whose signature she fancied she could trace in the street, in the burns or were they tattoos on the old women who lifted their cupped palms from where they sat on crates along the footpath praying for a handout with apparent, almost maternal indifference, or the slow strife that had given to the generation of certain tall women in light robes the structure of rarefied Andy Warhols. Someone with earlier experience might have found little remarkable about the first outburst. She went to Marina’s and meditated on fantastic revenge. Fumer crée une forte dépendence, ne commencez pas. Anche se non è vero, she said and shook her head. Marina shrugged and drew a cigarette for herself. You’re right, she said, forget it, don’t see him anymore, it isn’t worth it. If you brood you’ll only end up going back. She considered telling Rolo but reflected that Clément crushed could be all the more dangerous for his auxiliaries.
She was watchful in the evenings walking home beside the canal after work. It was crowded there. The multicoloured lights of the bars bobbed on the surface of the bargeless water while the boys and girls sat or reclined in broken circles smoking, drinking, and sometimes eating with what seemed to her on the far side of the lighted water to be vaguely ageless forms, the music from the odd radio rolling for the standard reason. In her situation there was something menacing about walking the wrong side of anonym-ity but if she left the canal and cut through by the Indian sweet shops or even curved right around by the old leper hospital with its trees as carved and cared for as its astringently hooded windows, it was less cowing than being inclined to welcome even a brief interval for withdrawal. Her newer reticence, while fruitless, was a revelation. As she brought Ibrahim’s son back from the park with the fossilised chairs one evening, a hobo, his gnarled hands effaced by the grey rags of his sleeves almost as completely as the roots of the vineyards once cultivated where the oldest of the apartment blocks were now giving way to urban growth, the curlicue of their rusted balconies heaped above the pavement while the graffiti contained on the rectangles of floral wallpaper whose few loose corners flapped in the breeze as if despite the scorch marks of toasters they were unstretched canvasses that had been hung the length of the retaining wall of the neighbouring building spoke of the hive’s abandonment before it was not, stretched his gaunt mug in the child’s direction and winked at her with assumed intelligence to which she found she was, on the spot, not certain how to respond. Something runnelled in the cobblestones at his feet. What did he say. Je n’ai jamais vu. At this rate the wolves will be at Paris in a hundred years. When at the end of a shift her boss poured two pints of beer over his head before rolling the Independent under his arm and swinging his leg across the red leather seat of his bicycle she may have preferred to say nothing to her colleague who wanted to know who then was Doris, that is to look before jumping in with her titbits, but if the vision of that natural pause did not evoke for her the plains of the Danube where the equipment of chivalry was passed on to Europe, that was not because she failed to glimpse something of the Pucelle travestied, stalled like a statue about to be toppled, in the figure that seconds later coasted shimmering by the pub windows. Her intuitions no longer filtered the intricacies of the vieille souche. The city was becoming visible.
It began on a sandbank didn’t it, she asked Ahmed, whom she’d met on the rue de Rivoli where he was sticking the sale posters on the window of a jewellery chain, pulling them down against the glass in strips, the pixilated links of giant gold necklaces and charm bracelets coming together in sections as a sentence is flashed out on placards by hands dissolving in the cupel of a packed stadium. Histoire d’O. Oui, attends, que je finis tout de suite.
She kicked at the sheaves of backing paper where they lay coiled on the ground like oversized pencil sharpenings, put her hands in her pockets, looked out over the place de l’Hotêl de Ville, the carousel turning its perpetually empty chambers among the pigeons and the day trippers. Il est interdit de changer de sujet pendant que le carrousel tourne. Ahmed, his ladder on his shoulder, asked her what was up.
It was nothing, probably, she said. She thought she had seen Clément from her window the night before, waiting in the street opposite her building. It had made her nervous, that was all. Let them go for a walk.
They elbowed their way west along the quay from Saint Michel, since it was better to avoid the possibility of being spotted from the beach over the pavement along the river. It reminded her of Ermenonville. Why didn’t she move in with him, Ahmed asked, ducking obligingly under someone’s viewfinder, if she wanted to.
Walker, stop here and contemplate. They came upon the Champ-de-Mars with the sun in their eyes. Decorated caravans churned out junk food to the spectators between the river and the ubiquitous criminals, the soldiers on patrol like rhinos among gazelles but the gendarmerie will hover by the police station under a far pillar of the tower with different intentions until one swoops alone on his bicycle the men scatter; apparently as slow but with less haste he circles back to the station trailing from the handrails your name in wooden letters while on the outskirts the rest are lingering, considering whether to stay or beat it till the pale flashes not the sun stroke la tour Eiffel, la tour Eiffel, la tour Eiffel, la tour Eiffel, la tour Eiffel, la tour Eiffel, la tour Eiffel, l’effroi muet de la forêt vanishing l’allure fatale de constellation in the lifted corners of a sheet. Is it over, Ahmed asked, the cub, night fallen. Yes, she said, leaning back in the unpeopled bushes and hoisting her summer dress.
On the way back by the river the floodlights of a bateau-mouche swept over them and they were shot a hundred times.
From her new apartment in the thirteenth there was a view onto a vacant lot between high rises, more accurately filled with vans and snowmen. At night she would hear sometimes, her head blank at first on the pillow, something like singing. It was burned out before the spring. She met a young woman from her state in the bakery at the corner and later, over coffee, after she had told her story as selectively as usual the other said yes, exactly the same thing happened to me.
They agreed to meet later at the Louvre, under the pyramid. The light thrown up on the tessellated glass of that supplementary vault barred the details of the evening sky. Her new friend came down the escalator in a leather jacket. She wanted to see the French painting and they ended up surrounded by the Marie de’ Medici cycle, dumbly transfixed by the refracted slick of a cherub dipping two fingers in the viscous folds of a stream and the mermaids with their generative coils and Henry hoisted directly through the thick air to heaven while far beneath the blue soles of the plurimammelate host the grass is growing as if it wished to obliterate the matrix of the earth or canvas and the demons themselves are represented with masks. Impressed, they talked about it later on the phone. Funny really, she said her toes squirming under the sheets. No, no mortification.
It’s what my art teacher used to call horror vacui.
My art teacher said never use black, Renoir used blue. She wasn’t choosy in her associations. She crossed her feet. They had been discussing permits. If only, she said, there was a way I could stay. Her friend too was vaguely hoping something might happen so she could cancel her return flight. She wanted to know, she said, she had wanted to ask before, had she ever done it with more than one boy, at the same time she meant. She herself was beginning to think perhaps she could never be satisfied with only one, that perhaps in the end that was all that had been missing, enfin, un fier baiser, and at the backpackers’ where she was staying, which she said was very international, something could be organised, she thought, pretty quickly, if she was interested.
She said yes to the first question and that she would think about it. As it was an especially warm night, she left the apartment and took a turn in the facing lot where the incinerated debris still lay around in dark lumps of charcoal and other, melted compounds, wires annealed to themselves, and all the garbage that had fallen between the cracks since, now fading with the rest under a thin layer of white powder shook out by the first blows of construction. She was not alone. Someone was picking his way between the mess towards her. She froze when she recognised him. Clément, stopping in the narrow clearing gave the strange impression of being about to drop to his knees. Instinctively, supposing he’d tripped, she held out her hands.
Forgive me, he said.
This was a case of the crags of the hermit’s cave mistaken for the castle of amours if there ever was one. Indifference and the almost total lack of escape routes overcame the less friendly velleity of flight. They talked. It would be easier inside, she would make them coffee at her place. There was some fumbling. Tu, she said, pressed to explain the obvious, her French, since her move, less to hand, ne m’attires plus. He roped deafly in the folds of her skirt. She tried another angle. Il n’y en a pas de préservatifs.
Peu importe, tu auras tes règles.
Mais je te le dis, non.
The blow left her sprawled against the bedside table. Clément seethed. She would bring ruin on the lot of them. What a way to begin the holidays. Sadina, he muttered, shivering from an untimely lack of laughter. You slut.
'Gorgeous Perambulator' by Jack Cox placed second in the 2012 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.
CONTENTS: SEPTEMBER 2012