I saw the diamonds in Jane’s ears as she opened the door to her apartment, an old chambre bonne – where the maids used to live— squeezed into the attic level of the building on Boursault, four or five others just like it down the hall.
“Want the tour?”
She placed down two bottles of wine next to the sink.
“Well, here’s the kitchen.”
She opened her arms in a show of grandeur. On the counter were orderly stacks of makeup, toiletries, coffee mugs and boxes of tea. A single silver kettle was tucked away in the corner.
“And here’s the shower.”
She swiveled her open arms just to the side, to reveal the upright shower in the corner. A rubber tube ran from the shower head, over the glass divider, down and over into the sink – the only source of water in the room.
“And over here’s the bedroom, the dressing room, the study, the living room and the dining room.”
She turned to face me and presented the twin-sized bed adorned in blue cotton blankets and five or six small pillows. The bed was tucked beneath a series of overhead cabinets fixed to the two walls that traced the mattress. She finished by pointing over to the bookshelf, which ran the length of the wall opposite the bed. Not a single inch was left naked on the walnut-coloured shelves, bearing legions of books, trinkets and jewelry boxes. A mannequin bust was in the corner, onto which Jane threw her hat. And a single fold up chair, resting on the bookshelf, was the only piece of furniture.
“And the toilettes?”
“Down the hall, of course!”
“Now if you’ll excuse me.” She picked up one of the bottles. “I’ll fix us a drink. Please, make yourself at home.”
I strolled along the bookshelf, with my hands behind my back. It was a library lifted straight from Shakespeare & Sons.
She had collected all the books I’d loved, and all the books I’d known for ever that I wanted to read. D.H Lawrence took up a quarter shelf, with his neighbor, and one-time biographer, Henry Miller knocking at his door with the Tropics and the Rosi Crucifixion. Salinger made a brief show but a good one, with Franny and with Catcher. Hemingway stood illustriously, big papa, with all his works lined up – notably For Whom the Bell Tolls, the only book over-stuffed with a series of post it notes in blue, pink and yellow. The things I’d always wanted to know, but couldn’t finish: Faulkner, Zola, Joyce, Proust. The things I’d known well: Nabokov, Marquez, Sartre,some Doestoevsky, Kafka. A surprise appearance by Vonnegut and, moreover, the beautiful things I’d never known at all but had always wanted to: Belljar, Don Quixote, Nietzche. That beautiful play, the last one I had read with the other, the rainy weekend in Argentina, Closer, and all the beautiful, terrible truth in which it now contained for me, jutted out at me from the shelf, like an arrow through the heart. Closer, Marber’s bible on love and truth, was the book I held in my hand as she came over, holding two coffee mugs splashing with red wine.
“One of my favourites.”
She handed me a mug and we drank.
“He’s a genius. You remind me of… Jane! Of course: you are Jane! Don’t tell me you used to be a stripper?”
“How else could a gal afford such luxury?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Except Jane was her real name. Mine’s still a mystery.”
“Is it? Let me guess. M something. K something. R something. Mary, Madeline, Melissa.”
She sat on the bed and I joined her.
“The longer I don’t know what it is, the more I like not knowing. You should burn all your documents, you should hide all the evidence. I don’t think I ever want to know it.”
“You’re probably a John, or Jake, or … Jack.”
Her words came as a shock. She must have know, I thought. Why else emphasize it like that? She must have seen it somewhere, some bill or letter left loose at the apartment.
“That’s not fair.”
“What’s not fair?”
“Now you know one of my secrets. You’ve got to tell me yours.”
“So I guessed it? Don’t tell me … Jake?”
“No, not John either.”
“Oh Jack! Jack! That’s rich. I have a gift.”
“You must have cheated.”
She shook her head and took a sip of wine. I moved closer to her and kissed her neck, then her lips, and left my hand on her back.
“So you owe me a secret now. Not your name. Anything else. It’s only fair.”
She thought a minute. She was looking at all her books.
“OK fine. Here it goes.
“This little room is my secret. It’s my favourite place in the world. And it’s saved my life more times than I can count.
“The first few years, with Jaques – Jesus, you guys practically have the same name – the first few years with the French man, let’s call him, I’d come back every now and then, when I needed it. Sometimes my sister’d be here. And we’d chat and have a few drinks. Mostly, though she was away, always traveling, always in some foreign country, and I’d have the place to myself. And those times were the best.
“I’d tell him I was going to meet a friend, or catch a movie, whatever. It didn’t matter. He’d never ask any questions. He never did. And so I’d come here. And no one knew.
“I’d sit up on that counter there, and smoke a hundred cigarettes, looking out that window at night. It was my own little Paris. Across the street there’s the gay sauna, you know, and I’d see the men come tumbling out, early in the morning, giggling to each other. One last stolen kiss before heading back to their wives. The college kids singing drunk on Fridays, turning the street into their living room. The Chinese whore in the massage parlor up the street – that neon sign would be left on all day and all night.
“I’d lean out with my head, with the cigarette to my lips, and would stare out. Or I’d be over here on the bed, reading one of my books, listening to the radio, and just, you know, being here. Not moving, not talking. The rest of the world not mattering.
As she spoke, I held my wine in one hand and the other rested on her leg. I drank as she continued.
“I never told him I came here. Never.
“I don’t know why. But I couldn’t. He’d have thought it was cute or something. Amusing, you know? Fuck. He wouldn’t have minded, or anything. Nothing like that. It’s not like I had to lie to him. But he wouldn’t have understood, either. He would have just laughed. I know it. I can see his stupid laugh just thinking of it. If it wasn’t money or his damn job, or whatever damn clothes he picked for me to wear, or my weight, I don’t think anything in the world mattered to that guy.”
I leaned in and kissed her neck, just below the jaw, balancing the mug on my lap. She kept talking, staring toward the window above the sink.
“He’s older you know – and he always made me feel like a kid, or like he thought I was kid. Always making me feel like I had to, you know, act in front of his friends, or something. I don’t know. It was like I embarrassed him.
“So, I’d come here and there was none of that bullshit. My little room up here in my white castle. And that’s it.”
“Why did you stop coming?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s not like one day I decided I’d just not come anymore. It just sort of happened. Things change, I suppose. I stopped thinking about it.”
She shrugged her shoulders and let out her breath. She broke her stare from the window, looked over at me, then drank the rest of her wine.
She walked over to the sink to refill the mugs. I walked over to join her, as I wanted to look out the window, to see her view, her own little Paris. I stared out and saw the corrugated roofs, the adobe colored roofs, the silver and green and white roofs of Paris. And below, a block away, the massage parlor she had mentioned, its sign faintly glowing neon orange in the day light. I took out my e-pipe and tried to smoke from it, but the battery had died.
I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
“Just in case.”
I winked. I pulled out two cigarettes and handed her one.
She found a pack of wooden matches near the sink, and she lit our cigarettes, first mine, then hers. I watched her shake the match and blow out the flame with her cloud of smoke. She hopped up onto the counter and pushed open the window. A cool air came in, along with the sounds of the cars on the road. I hopped up on the opposite side and we each smoked, our hands dangling out the window when not in service.
“And you, what’s your secret?”
“But you already got my name.”
“But that’s not such a secret, Jake. You would have told me that anyway. Besides mine was better.”
I took a long inhale and blew the smoke out the window.
Do I tell her? What else is there to say? There is only one secret and I want her to know it – she should know it. Anything else, won’t matter.
She pulled on her cigarette. Her eyebrows raised a bit.
“No. Not her. My wife is not in Paris. She’s not even in Canada. She’s on the other side of the world.
“To be honest we haven’t been married, not really, for a long time. It’s just a thing on paper now.”
“How long has it been?”
“Officially? Haven’t seen her in 9 months. Unofficially, it’s been years, you know. There were problems.”
She is going to think you’re too much. Don’t bring your problems to this girl. She will get bored.
“Look, it’s not like with you. I mean, it is, but it’s not so dramatic. Really, I think I’m better off now, you know? I’m good. It was all amicable.”
She’s not going to buy it.
“Yeah, I’m sure. What happened? You cheat on her?”
She was looking me in the eyes. Her cigarette stayed out the window.
“I don’t know, it’s complicated. No. Never cheated on her. Never when we were married, anyway. She was very unhappy for a long time. So was I but I didn’t know it, you know? I do now, of course, but it’s too late. It’s hard to explain. We still loved each other, at the end, but it wasn’t any good. She practically killed herself before leaving me. Then she left, to save her life.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I stared out the window. I thought of her. I saw her brown eyes crying, with the tremendous black lashes, super imposed over the cold, white Paris landscape. Her ghost there, I could see it, and it was crying. The eyes. The last day I had seen her at the airport.
“I don’t know. Things fell apart. I didn’t change. Things fell apart.”
I finished the cigarette and let it fall down to the street like a marionette cut from its strings. She did the same.
She was pointing up the street to the massage parlour. An old man, wearing a blue trench coat and a scarf, was looking into the window. He was fat, shaped like a pear, and his bald head was the same shape. He had a giant, white beard and the look of a drinker, of a single man, unhappy. He stared one way, then the other, as if he thought he was being followed.
“There he goes.”
The man opened the door, then disappeared behind the curtain of beads that obscured the inside. A faint red glow could be seen shimmering beyond the dancing strings of blue and purple beads. The door closed and he was gone.
I had a coldness in my chest. It was the feeling of summer turning to Fall – the cold air, the smell in the air, the time for the leaves to drop. I felt a pressure all along my stomach, up to the back of my throat. I wanted to not be thinking of her, of the other. I wanted only to see Jane, to let Jane wash away this coldness, to plunge into it with her touch, with my touch of her, to take away all the ghosts and dancing frost within me. So I stood up, and with Jane still on the counter, I kissed her on the lips, with my hands again holding her head, and kissed her on the forehead, and bit her ear, the diamond between my teeth and on my tongue, and pulled open her blouse, putting my hands inside, the buttons, plastic, tumbling to the floor, making sound, and to her neck, to lick it, and to bring the tongue to her ear, and to feel her breath on my neck, to hear her pleasure at the intrusion in her ear, the unbearable sensation of my air on her neck, to feel my arms, from the push ups that morning, feel strong, and to feel her feeling them in her palms, her hands then to my back, mine now at her back, beneath her shirt.
I removed her blouse, her bra, as she stayed on the counter. I put her breast in my mouth and held her waist close to my chest. I couldn’t stop the taking of it. In my mouth. I would have stayed like that for hours but I knew I shouldn’t. So to her ribs, her collarbones, then back to the breast. Sucking, kissing, and when back to her lips, turning her nipple in my fingers, possessing her breast in one hand. Thoughts of the other danced back in my head, so I pulled Jane into my arms and threw her onto the bed. I forced her to turn on her stomach and removed her pants. I bit her ass, and put my hand between her legs, feeling the black underwear, feeling it was wet now. Then off with them. Then my clothes. She tried to roll onto her back, but I placed a hand on her and said “no” and she stayed down.
Now there was no thought of the other as I entered her. The image of her back, of her hair, her profile of the face, the open mouth. I held her at the waist, I had one foot on the floor, the other bent beneath my knee on the bed. It was violent and there was no holding back.
But slow down. But love her. But not like this.
I breathed. I removed myself and she turned onto her back. I breathed again and looked into her eyes, and she mine, before returning to her. Before our eyes would look up, before my eyes would close, and my eyes would open, and I would focus on her, and focus on how she felt, before I would count my breaths, and then kiss her again, on the chest, and again her breasts, before I could bite again her ear, and keep going. And now “Jack, she says, and “Jack,” again, and she is saying my name – and how could I say “Jane,” so I didn’t – and who was this girl I was making love to – and then again thoughts of the woman on the other side of the world, so again I had to look at Jane, to look into Jane, to kiss Jane, to be with Jane, and only Jane, and hold on to the feeling of Jane, there with me. And so into Jane. And my name. And she looking upward, up into the heavens beyond the bed, and her mouth wide and down into the mouth, the teeth, the tongue, all of it pushing her body free of thought, she wouldn’t think, she couldn’t be thinking, though now I’m back in my head, and so “Jane,” I say, “Oh fuck Jane,” I say, “you’re so fucking sexy, Jane,” and that brings her to me, the words spoken, the taboo of speech, brings Jane to me, and no one else, and only Jane, and so she screams. Her nails clench into my back. She is contracting, and loosening, and she shivers and I realize there is now only me, as she sinks into the bed, as she forgets her own name, and mine, and there is no one now but me, and so Jane, I put her breasts in one hand, the other supports me on the bed, and I move quickly and toward that moment where all things turn white. Until finally, there I am, and it is finished, and into Jane’s chest I can now fall, to join her where she is.
I stayed with my head on her chest. We were both breathing. The sounds of the road came back to me. I wanted to get up, to get another drink, to light another cigarette, but I knew it would be better if I waited, if I waited for Jane to be ready to move, too, so I stayed. I rolled out and moved up on the bed and took her into my arms. I played with her blonde hair in my fingers. I could see her, see Jane, and everything about her was beautiful. I ran a finger along her chest, and punctuated the freckles, comparing them, inevitably, to my own, and trying to find patterns, to find reflections, of my freckles with hers. A triangular constellating there, the same as the one here, on me. And then to kiss her again, to wait again, to breath again.
“Meredith,” she said. “Meredith.”
(To be continued)