Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Night in the Afternoon & Other Erotica

by Caroline Lamarche

“Like the title, which recalls Belle de Jour, might suggest, [Night in the Afternoon] is, but is not merely, a short libertine novel. . . . It is masterful, from beginning to end, intelligent, and in many passages, very beautiful.” –La Quinzaine

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 112
  • Publication Date November 15, 2000
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3709-8
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.25"
  • US List Price $12.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9950-8
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

Night in the Afternoon is a breathless, lyrical, and starkly erotic novella of a young woman caught between two lovers. Though she shares a wonderfully tender and loving relationship with her boyfriend Gilles, she is unconsciously lured by a newspaper ad placed by a “masterful man” requesting a “docile” young woman. Answering it, she meets someone she will know only as the red-headed man. They begin a brief but intense affair–she swearing each time that she will not see him again, only to feel her resolve crumbling before their next assignation. Reminiscent of Pauline Reage and Alina Reyes, this is an unforgettable story of an irresistible, forbidden desire. Joined here by several of Caroline Lamarche’s short stories, Night in the Afternoon & Other Erotica is a delectable, sophisticated piece of literary erotica and a deeply satisfying exploration of illicit passion.

Tags Erotica

Praise

“To say that Night in the Afternoon is an erotic novel is to reduce it. . . . Beautiful . . . It is about, in effect, learning to reexperience love. . . . In Night in the Afternoon, to surrender is to be delivered.” –Les Inrockuptibles

“Like the title, which recalls Belle de Jour, might suggest, [Night in the Afternoon] is, but is not merely, a short libertine novel. . . . It is masterful, from beginning to end, intelligent, and in many passages, very beautiful.” –La Quinzaine

Excerpt

1
The kittens were born three days ago. And for three days I’ve been bleeding. Four days, in fact–the day before the kittens were born, when I got up from the bed in that short-stay hotel, in that room I’m going to have to talk about, I saw a little drop of blood on the sheet, so light it was already dry, caused, I guess, by one of those things he used to penetrate me.

“There’s a bit of blood,” I said, utterly surprised, as if suddenly discovering that I had lost my virginity.
I folded the corner of the sheet, thinking of the manageress. She was a beautiful woman still, but fierce-looking, authoritarian, and I didn’t want her to notice the blood.

I wanted her to rip the sheet off the bed, roll it into a ball, and throw it into the washing machine with the others, all smelling of sperm and sweat–the rooms were all taken that afternoon, we were the last to arrive–and then boil the sheets slowly and throw them into a scorching hot dryer, until they were light and soft again, just things to sleep on.

When the kittens came out, they were huddled together in a sticky pouch. Then their mother tore it, and out they slid, wet and blind. Their mother–I call her Douce–is black and white, like my childhood maid, with her black dress, white apron, and white gloves, all childhood maids are black and white, there’s nothing else to distinguish them, you can’t tell from their faces how old they are, or what they have under their skirts, or what their feet or arms look like. But they carried me the way a mother cat carries her young, instinctively, and just as a kitten forgets its mother, so I forgot them. That’s how motherhood should be–a story of maids and young masters, happy in the knowledge that you don’t belong to each other, and that the kisses and the blows won’t be a burden, happy that you owe your life to an anonymous hand in a white glove, and you don’t have to spend your whole life blessing it or biting it.

The man had a white glove too, a white latex glove. I saw it afterwards, when the two hours were up and I was looking on the floor for my clothes. A short glove, the kind maids used to wear. It was on the floor, on the not very clean carpet, along with flesh-colored dildos and colored plastic clothespins and other things I preferred not to examine too closely. I didn’t even see the strap, it must have been wide, as wide as a belt, maybe it was a big belt with a buckle, because of the two distinct scars I had, like razor cuts, one to the left of my navel and the other on my right breast.

“I used something wide,” he told me later. “I didn’t want to leave too much of a mark, because of your boyfriend.”

Back home, it hurt a lot when I peed. There was a sharp burning sensation, and blood in the bowl. Although it was a hot day, I felt so cold that I filled the bathtub with very hot water, and when I started washing myself, I couldn’t stop.

You mustn’t touch the kittens for a day or two. If you pick them up during that time, the mother refuses to feed them, or else eats them. That’s something we’ve always known about animals. It’s humans we know very little about, or are only just starting to learn. Nobody ever put me on my mother’s belly and left me there, still wet from my birth. What they did with me was wash me, wrap me in a pretty bundle, and put me in a cradle next to the big bed.

I don’t have any memory of childhood, any memory of bodies from my childhood, either mine or my mother’s. I construct a memory out of men’s bodies, belatedly save myself with men’s bodies, as an adult I invent a childhood, wet from the sperm that gave me birth.

There was one whole day when I was saturated with the thing, when it clung to my skin. As if I’d never left that short-stay hotel, or its sickly smell, or the crumpled sheets pulled up so that the bare mattress showed through. But I didn’t try to rid myself of it. I didn’t even look at my body. I stayed at home the whole day, huddled up in bed. From time to time, a little blood ran between my legs. When evening came, I stripped off and looked at myself in the mirror.

Gilles rang the bell while I was looking at myself in the mirror. I had no idea he was coming. He came out of the blue, at a crucial moment when what happened could either have become fixed or disappeared. When his gaze rested on my naked body, the whole thing became real. I wish I could extract the essence of that gaze, drink it in little sips, or lay it between my breasts, absorb it like a perfume, knowing it’s something I’ll never have, that straightforward way of looking at things, so sober and inscrutable, so fair in its judgment that you just have to respond immediately and with total sincerity.

I remember his toneless voice. “What happened?”

And I see my body again as it appeared to me in the mirror–bruises on the crotch, wide red streaks on the thighs and buttocks, and on the belly too, close to the pubic hair, and those two distinct cuts, one on the right breast, the other to the left of the navel.

“Something stupid,” I replied.

And for a time, the memory was labeled ‘stupid” –the time it took Gilles to get used to it. Then he undressed, sat down on the edge of the bed, and began to touch me. He did it very gently, until I greeted the orgasm by stretching my arms and legs and crying out, as usual. When everything was calm again, he touched me very lightly in the places where I had been hit, like a doctor examining a patient.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

So I said, in a solemn voice, that naked, defenseless voice that coming always releases in me:

“I answered an ad.”

The truth is, I answered a dream. One night I dreamed that an unknown man took me by force, with grim determination, his gestures so precise and quick he could as easily have been murdering me as making love to me. Above our two bodies, two birds were flying. One was a peacock, his tail spread in a helix, flying the way no peacock has ever flown, graceful as a swan and strong as an eagle. The other was a bird-woman with blood-red feathers. She spiraled to the ground, crash-landed, and lay there in her scarlet finery. I recognized myself in her, I was that winged woman, it was my face that looked up at the sky while my body surrendered to the stranger’s violent lovemaking. Beside us, an open box, containing an assortment of instruments–pliers, tongs, scalpels. I looked at them, surprised and deeply curious. Who was going to open me up, and why? I trembled with desire, the desire to be at the mercy of tools like those, which cut through flesh, pull the wounds open, and keep them open.

I never read the paper with the classified ads, I never buy it. I read the daily papers. Not the stuff about politics. The kinds of things I read are crime reports, stories about rapes, or else film and theater reviews, interviews with actors. I admire judges and film directors, but I think actors, like criminals and their victims, are worthy of the brightest and most unequivocal thing I have in me–fascination.

It was Gilles who gave me the paper with the classified ads, because I was worried about what would happen to the kittens after they were born–I didn’t want to put any of them to sleep, I wanted them all to live. In the paper, you can offer kittens to give away, everyone does it. There are several sections: “houses, apartments, furniture, cars, animals “” A pity they don’t have a section for “babies,” babies to give away, so you can choose one, just like that, and take it home with you in a Moses basket bought specially, all in pink gingham, a surprise for the man you love, even if he’s not your man and never will be.

Usually, after “animals’ come the personals. And there was the ad. It wasn’t the only one, there were thirty at least, but that’s the one I saw, straightaway, because it matched the dream, gave off the same vibrations, as if it had a magnet hidden in it and my pupils had turned into iron filings.

“Masterful man seeks flexible young woman to share intimate moments “” There followed a post office box and the name of a town, my town, the town where I worked, where I loved, with its black canal under an open sky and its motionless barges, the very town where I live.

I can still see myself sitting at the kitchen table, writing, I can still see myself throwing the letter in the nearest box, the one at the corner of the avenue. It must have been ten in the evening, and the air smelled of vanilla, or more likely lime trees in blossom. The neon signs of the restaurant floated in the black water of the canal. People passed, chatting, and on the caf” terrace a guitarist was passing a hat around. It might have been the south of France, or a secluded cove in a Greek port, a cove where boats don’t go, only people strolling idly up and down the quays. I thought of the customers at the agency. They’re always on the lookout for unusual destinations, and I try my best to satisfy them, because it’s my job. My way of changing scenery is to answer an ad, with the night air starting to smell of vanilla and the cool dirty waters of the canal stirring memories of vacations.

“I couldn’t help myself ” Do you understand?”

“No,” Gilles said.

He lit a cigarette and took a drag, screwing up his eyes. When he opened them again, the circles of his lashes were like two stars.

“It was bound to happen. I should have known one day you’d do the dirty on me.”

That gentle voice of his, absorbing the catastrophe at the speed of light. Gilles always wins, even when he loses.

I laughed. “As long as I don’t give you a baby–”

Gilles stood up abruptly, leaving us, the bed and me, in disarray. You don’t give a baby to a man who’s married with kids, you make do with crumbs, gaps in the schedule, improvised lovemaking at the end of the day, and you take your pill every morning, because you’re a big girl and you have a sense of responsibility.

But all I want, sometimes, is a baby, and for everything else to disappear. A baby in my belly, and then in my arms, like my sister. My sister has a baby already, and she’ll have more, she’s the kind of woman who lives through her belly– the belly that makes babies, not the one you give your lovers.

Once I’d mailed my reply, the world seemed to shake around me, tiny cracks spreading rapidly like ripples across a calm surface. The very next day, a stranger would have my name, my address, my telephone number, the suggestion we meet in a local bar, a little bit of information about me–height, weight, hair color, details of what I’d be wearing so he could spot me easily. He would have the power to confirm the appointment or not, to turn up or to stay away, to station himself under my windows and watch me coming out every morning and follow me to the travel agency, or else approach me and see a smile form on my face ” I had started to smile at passersby, as if every man I met could be the stranger. It was a vague smile, ambiguous–I might have been smiling because of the fine weather, or because everyone on the street was wearing flannel and cotton, but I could just as easily have been smiling like a woman in love, because of some secret that only I knew. I did have a secret–the dream. I knew nothing about the man in the ad, but the dream had inflamed me, I was excited and afraid at the same time, as if approaching a ritual. Waiting for the appointed day, I was like a disciple preparing, bending my neck in imagination, kissing the hand of the Master and the attributes of his office–pliers, tongs, scalpel.

But when the day came and I saw the man–he had confirmed nothing, leaving me in suspense up until the last minute–when he stood up and walked toward me in the bar I had indicated in my letter, he seemed so nondescript, I found him quite ugly. He didn’t shake my hand. I couldn’t read anything in his eyes as he looked me over, except perhaps a touch of annoyance, as if my red scarf–the color I had indicated–was excessive, my makeup artificial, my perfume obvious.

We sat down on the terrace. He ordered a coffee and I asked for an iced tea. He started to talk, mopping his forehead with a paper handkerchief. For a moment I thought he was going to say he had been sent by his Master, the way it happens in the stories. He certainly gave no impression that he found me attractive, or even that he was looking at my body with any thought of what he would do to it. In fact, he seemed completely uninterested in me. All he did was talk, on and on, as if to reassure himself. I listened to him, dumbstruck, thinking about the ways I could refuse, preparing them, polishing them. I looked at his narrow shoulders, his slightly stooped back, his very short hair, blond verging on red, his freckled skin, very white on the arms, red on the face because of the sun that day, and his eyes squinting under the light. I thought of what I would tell Gilles. “You know, I answered an ad, just to see, and when I saw the guy, I realized–” I would describe the man to him, making fun of him, just one more little massacre among thousands of others on the planet, like squashing a mosquito, nothing more. Then I would stroke Gilles’s thick iron-gray hair and run my finger over his long lashes, and I would ask him to touch me lightly between my shoulder blades, in the sensitive spot we discovered by chance while making love, and in other places too, everywhere, with those long supple fingers of his that travel over my body with the boldness and gentleness of a beautiful language.

“I have a boyfriend,” I told the guy.

He didn’t look at me. He seemed worried.

“That’s a drag. I don’t want any problems with your boyfriend.”

He gulped his coffee, took the cookie from his saucer, unwrapped it, and gave it to me. “What are you looking for, exactly?” he asked through thin lips.

“I don’t know.”

I finished my tea, then ate the cookie, saying, “Thank you very much,” like a schoolgirl. The sun was burning hot, the terrace packed. It seemed to me the man was constantly asking the same question, with the addition of a few crude words, almost like a doctor probing for symptoms.

“What is it you like? Every woman’s different. How about fellatio? Or sodomy? Some like it, some don’t.”

I felt tremendously weary. “I don’t mind it,” I said. “I don’t mind anything.”

Just then, I remembered the dream. I felt numb.

“As long as I’m dominated,” I murmured, “I’ll do anything.”

We arranged to meet the following week.

* * *

The next day and the days after that, I worked as usual, ate, slept, shopped, went about my business, saw Gilles occasionally. But all that time, I was waiting. While I slept, while I ate, while I talked to customers, while I kissed Gilles gently on the lips, I was waiting. I was cool, self-possessed, a victim of a condition that is very familiar to me, the total freezing of my emotions. It’s a chronic disease, inherited from childhood, imprinted in the genes of well-to-do families, masters of their possessions and their affections. Nothing in my life gives me any motivation to break free of the condition, except dreams, those subtle combinations of vivid images that somehow conspire to save me. According to what they tell me, I form attachments or break them.

The red-headed man had suggested we go by train. The hotel where he wanted to take me was in the city, and you could never find anywhere to park. I arrived at the station five minutes before the train left. He was waiting for me under the clock, looking anxious.

“I didn’t think you’d come.”

He was more familiar than before. More worried too. I wondered why he didn’t have a suitcase or an overnight bag with him. Where did he keep his whips and chains? If I couldn’t be attracted to a Master–I’d abandoned that idea the first moment I met him–at least I wanted a ritual, symbolic objects, I wanted blindfolds, rope to bind my wrists, whips of different sizes, dildos, harnesses, leather collars. The lack of accessories revolted me. But I didn’t let anything show, and I didn’t ask any questions. We got our tickets and went onto the platform, and I continued to be very formal with him.

It was a suburban station, a quiet station with only two tracks. There were red roses on the walls, and a black cat running into a tunnel covered with graffiti, naive and crude but fairly mild suburban graffiti. There were also two black women in bright dresses, standing on different platforms and shouting across the tracks. They were telling each other a story we didn’t understand, and laughing, with easy, uncontrolled laughter, African laughter. While we waited for the train, the red-headed man took out some mail from the pocket of his light leather jacket and opened it. A pornographic magazine, some publicity for the Erotica Show, and a letter. He skimmed through the letter and handed it to me.

‘read it.”

“It’s not addressed to me.”

“Read it.”

I read quickly, in a fog. It was a woman like me, answering his ad. She had watched S/M videos, and liked what she saw, but she was afraid. Did he do things like that– whip women till the blood ran, hang them by their breasts, sew up their labia? Would she be branded, sodomized with different-sized objects, gang-banged? I looked up. The man was watching me.

“I don’t reply to women who are afraid,” he said.

“I’m not afraid,” I said, watching the cat move along the wall with the red roses. In the silence, the black women laughed. Everything could stay like this, forever.

* * *

By the time we got off the train, the city was like an oven. It was too early, the room was booked for three o’clock, we had half an hour to kill. We walked until we found a caf”. As the red-headed man pushed open the door, something fell to the tiled floor with a slight noise. It was a bright pink plastic clothespin. The man bent down, picked it up, and stuffed it in his pocket. Where had it come from, and why was he so anxious to retrieve it? It was a mystery, and because of it, one of those slight shifts took place in my mind, the kind that take you into another world, where the faces look like paintings and the tables and chairs like film sets, so that everything is suddenly like a fiction, and life is transfigured by something as small as a pink clothespin falling on a tiled floor.

We ordered two coffees. For some reason, I had the idea it wasn’t the right time of day to ask for a glass of wine, and for a moment that trivial detail became the focus of all my anxieties. All the same, I needed a drink.

“I think I’d prefer a little wine,” I told him shyly, feeling I was blaspheming.

Without hesitation, the man stood up, went to the counter, and changed my order. He came back and sat down. We said nothing until the coffee and the wine arrived. The waitress was middle-aged, strong and brown-skinned, her hair tied in a loose bun. She was wearing a white apron over a black dress. It would have seemed old-fashioned anywhere else in the city, but here, in this area of offices and ministries, it seemed just right. All she needed was white gloves, and she’d look the way maids used to in the old days.

The red-headed man and I started to talk. We seemed to have been saying exactly the same words over and over since we first met. I told him again that I needed to be dominated, that I’d do anything as long as I was dominated. He showed me the magazine he’d received that morning, a touch apologetically, it seemed to me. It wasn’t up to much, he said, it was commercial, he didn’t know why they still sent it to him, he didn’t ask for it. I leafed through it. There were photos of naked women with shaved pubises sitting on bottles or masturbating themselves with their fingers, their nails enormously long. There were women licking men’s cocks, and women with brooches in their breasts, dog collars around their necks and whips in their hands. Some of the women wore figure-hugging leather suits that covered them from head to toe, their faces masked, with only a slit for their eyes and a circle for their mouths. In these outfits, they either stood in dominating poses or lay with their legs apart on leather gynecological seats with stirrups for the feet and straps to hold the limbs in place. The photos were mediocre, revolting in their banality. I told him so, adding that it was a pity, an artist like Mapplethorpe could have done something marvelous with a subject like that, and I repeated ‘marvelous,” but I was thinking of Mapplethorpe’s flowers, because I hated all the rest, all those nudes of Mapplethorpe’s that meant so much to people who treat sex as some kind of bodybuilding exercise. The tulips and orchids, though–from the front or the side, open or closed, they were so perfect they made you want to cry, they were marvelous, that was the only word you could use. The man agreed, though he seemed a bit embarrassed. Maybe he’d never heard of Mapplethorpe.

I turned a few pages and came to the ads.

“Obviously, there’s something for every taste,” he said, a trifle shamefaced, as if he was personally to blame for the advertisers’ whims.

I had to read slowly to try to decipher the abbreviations and the specialized terms. I asked him to explain about certain practices–fetishism, for example, or the use of women as maids at high-class evening parties, or the stretching of the labia to eight centimeters, attached with elastic bands to the thighs under a miniskirt.

“It’s ridiculous,” I said, and forced myself to laugh heartily, like a playground supervisor trying to share the children’s jokes.

Yes, he muttered, it was ridiculous, that was why he never advertised there. He placed his ads in the Saturday paper, and he made them discreet, just enough so that a woman interested in things like that would understand. I looked up and stared at his pale eyebrows and, with sudden intensity, recited from memory: ‘masterful man seeks flexible young woman to share–”

He interrupted me, not at all aggressively, and explained patiently that two or three years ago, even such a mild ad would have been censored by the paper and returned to the sender. Today you could write that sort of thing if you were careful. “Flexible” was more acceptable than ‘submissive,” for example, and anyway, “flexible” –he hesitated–”looks better.” As he spoke, he shot me a somber and almost vindictive look. Our eyes met. I started to leaf through the magazine again, mechanically.

“I’m very flexible,” I said, my eyes lowered. “I can touch my toes with my fingers.”

“The people who are interested in these things,” he said, “go a lot further than that.”

An uneasy silence fell, filled for him, I guess, with visions that went “a lot further.” The phrase amused me. I was starting to find the man interesting. Without intending to, he was demonstrating the huge gap between us. There was something quite ridiculous about the two of us together. We were so different, we seemed like grotesque caricatures to each other. A well-bred doll who never went “a lot further” and a bad guy who couldn’t be taken seriously, each twinkling like a star in its own sky, light years from the other–me with my dreams of birds, him with his weird questions. Would I like to be dominated by several men, for example? I just had to say the word. There were plenty of people interested, the main difficulty was finding a day and a time that suited everybody.

“You have to realize, life isn’t like in the books, where people arrange to meet in dungeons with all the right equipment. In life, you have your job from nine to five, your family from five to nine, apartment buildings are full of housewives and screaming brats, and ten of you can’t all go up to a hotel room at the same time. But anyway, if you want to, I can try. How about it?”

He laughed, a feeble laugh that made me nauseous. I smiled. There was quite a long silence, filled with the noise his spoon made as he stirred his coffee.

“Anyway, I’m a stickler for hygiene. No penetration without a condom.”

“Of course,” I said, and thought of the men I’d known. None of them could stand the things.

“Around here,” he added, “there are times during the day when the sewers are clogged with all the condoms coming down. Which just shows they’re all at it–lawyers, doctors, government employees, all of them–all day, every day, but especially in the afternoons, in private houses, little hotels, that’s all there is around here, all the streets are full of them, but you won’t see anything, they all look anonymous from the outside.”

I listened, fascinated. The city was a gigantic brothel.

“That’s marvelous,” I said.

“Marvelous’ again. It was a word we used a lot when I was growing up, a very kind and tolerant word–a marvelously close family, a marvelous reception, a marvelous piece of charitable work, a certificate of excellence at school, that’s marvelous, dear, marvelous.

He smiled rather distantly, without looking at me. It was nearly three o’clock, and the wine was going to my head. I asked him about his family, that’s what you’re supposed to do to put people at their ease when the conversation drops, it’s what I was taught to do when I used to visit Margot in her old people’s home. Margot, the last survivor of a generation of maids in black dresses and white aprons, Margot red-faced and wrinkled in her old age, like one of those varieties of apples they don’t grow anymore. I was fifteen years old, fifteen years of comfort and breeding, with a pleated skirt over exquisite calves, and a kind smile, a perfectly sincere smile that hid a marvelous sadness, the sadness rich children feel when they discover that there’s no way to cross the divide between their world and the world of those poorer than themselves, and that the whole universe will always be divided in two, till the end of time. Margot responded with good grace to my well-bred compassion, like someone speaking from one bank of a river to someone on the other bank, while contemplating the majestic river between them, an impassable border.

The red-headed man, though, replied with bad grace, and something of that old delicious sadness came back. His was a real hard-luck story–he was abandoned by his parents at birth. There really is such a thing as denial of paternity, it’s even written in the parish registers for everyone to read, you just have to ask, he said insistently, as if anxious to convince me. The fact that it was down in black and white seemed to be what impressed him most. The rest followed naturally. Brought up in institutions. As a teenager, ran away from it all. Found a job as a messenger in the city, then as a waiter in a restaurant. Then this and that–little jobs. Twenty years of little jobs. He might have been talking about a twenty-year love affair, or a twenty-year career. A real loser, in other words, but a good guy all the same, the cream of the underprivileged, who hadn’t joined the ranks of those who rape or kill because of their grim childhoods, the kind of men who get mentioned on the front pages of my favorite newspapers.

He repeated that he was free during the day, and that in the future we could see each other at whatever time suited me best.

“Abandoned at birth.” Someone actually wrote that in black and white. In a register intended to record death as well as life, the kind of register that had recorded the births in my own family–’son of”, daughter of”” –branching out into a solid, well-respected tree, decorated with coats of arms.

“In the future,” he’d said, and “whatever time suits you best.” A man who didn’t seem busy, who didn’t slot me into the gaps in his day, a man abandoned by time. There were people all around us, businesspeople, a few workers with broad shoulders and solid trades, and there I was, sipping my glass of wine, and there was the man, so totally at my disposal I couldn’t bear it, drinking his third cup of coffee and letting time pass.

“Well,” I said, “it’s after three. Are we going or not?”

“Why? Have you changed your mind?” He seemed unconcerned. ‘do you want us to stay here and talk?”

It seemed to me we could easily do just that. But we fell silent again, and the effect of the wine was wearing off. We either had to say goodbye right now or let our bodies do the talking.

“If we’re staying,” I said, “I’ll need more wine. If we’re going, let’s go quickly, I need to be a bit drunk like this to go.”

He paid the bill and left a large tip. I never leave anything, I just pick up the change. A cup of coffee’s expensive enough, for something you could just as easily drink at home.

“I didn’t think people tipped anymore.”

“I’ve been a waiter,” he said simply. “I know what it means to get a tip.”

I felt a new and unexpected emotion. Something like respect for him, and for people like him, the kind of people he defended when he said “keep the change.” Shame, too, at having thought for so long that a nice smile was enough.

We went out. We turned onto one street among all the others. I looked at the sun-drenched housefronts.

“Don’t try to look for it,” he said. “You can’t see anything from outside.”

The house was tall and gray, with a nineteenth-century front and a solid door. We went in without ringing. Here we were, we’d arrived, it’d soon be over, this thing that would be just like the red-headed man–rather strange, rather sad, on the margins of other people’s lives. Suddenly, I thought of Margot. Whenever I went to see her, I told myself the same thing: It’ll soon be over. An hour in another world, and then straight back home–instant relief. I remember a big four-poster bed, just one, that took up a whole wall and a corner of the window. I remember a chair–maybe there were two, but Margot always sat on the bed when I came, and I sat on the chair, so there must have been just one. There was a washbasin somewhere, I can’t remember where, and a wardrobe, I can’t remember that either. I wonder if you saw those things when you were fifteen. I wonder what you saw, when you were fifteen. You saw people’s bodies, Margot’s very thick legs that seemed swollen with water, you heard her labored breathing, you remember she kept saying: ‘my emphysema.” You saw her yellow complexion, her partially toothless smile that made her look like a witch, you breathed in the sickly smell, you heard the irritating ticking of the big red alarm clock, but you kept coming, bravely, every week, because the whole edifice–good deeds, love, the sense of life–had always rested on Margot. You came to hear Margot talk about her youth, the time she worked for your family as a maid, and how, whenever the trains were on strike, she would walk to work, two hours there, two hours back, following the railroad track because she didn’t know the roads well, and besides, work is sacred, and you mustn’t disappoint your employers. She’d had good legs in those days, but now they were heavy, not to mention the emphysema. You came because Margot asked you one day if you were going to marry and have children, and when you answered yes, of course, she told you in a low voice that if it hadn’t been for the work and the employers’ children, especially “you, dear, I pulled you out of this incredible jumble of sheets, you could have suffocated,” if it hadn’t been for all that, which added up to a kind of family life, she would have married. Yes, the opportunities were there, but first take care of those close to you, those closest to you–those who employ you and whom you end up loving–because in any case, men always manage, even with a broken heart. You came because Margot whispered that kind of thing as she looked through the half of the window that wasn’t hidden by the bed. You came because there was a broken heart, a belly as dry as a pod on legs that were too thick, and it was fascinating that Margot could laugh, despite everything, and love you so much that one day she gave you her bracelet of imitation pearls and imitation stones, in a setting of imitation gold. You ran errands for her, fetched her cotton balls, aspirin, a battery for her flashlight, and you brought her flowers from Mama’s garden, flowers the gardener had grown, flowers that didn’t cost anything. You brought cakes you’d made yourself, you were good at making cakes, but only cakes, because for everything else there was the cook to do it, that was why you didn’t know how to make coffee or fry eggs, but cakes, yes, you invited your girlfriends over on Saturday afternoons to make cakes, and on Sundays, after Mass, you went to see Margot and had coffee and cake. And then when you started college, far enough away so you didn’t have to come back every week, you said goodbye to Margot, thinking you’d see her in a year, and two months later, Margot died, and some time after that, you received in the mail a little package of her last treasures–the red alarm clock, a statuette of Our Lady of Lourdes, a boxwood rosary– along with a note from the lawyer saying she’d put it in writing that she wanted you to have these things. It was all so sad and so typical and proved how useful love was–it must have been love that prolonged the old woman’s life through all those visits. And maybe you should give yourself to the red-headed man in the same way, only here there was an added sense of the ridiculous, how ridiculous it was going to be, fucking in a short-stay hotel, and how disgusting, because here there was no love, and certainly no death.

A little entrance hall. A staircase. To the left of the staircase, a door with a window, leading to an office. The door was closed, and there was a note stuck behind the handle: “I’m at the grocer’s. Indicate the room you’re using and the time you arrived.” Followed by room numbers from one to ten, with little circles that had to be blacked in. They all had been, except for number seven.

“I’ll go have a look at the room,” the red-headed man said.

He ran upstairs. I stayed where I was, leaning against the front door. And then the door opened, pinning me against the wall, and the manager came in. She looked me up and down. She must have been beautiful once, and maybe she still was. I find it hard to judge that kind of tired, rather casual beauty. The red-headed man came back down.

“I’ve been up to see room seven. Apparently it’s the only one free.”

The woman looked at the paper with the circles. “That’s right, number seven. You can have it.”

I thanked her and smiled, quite boldly. I wanted her to see it meant nothing for me to come here, it was no different from going somewhere to have a drink or see a show, there was nothing special about this place, it was just an ordinary house, and I was just a weary traveler, a guest being shown to her room for an afternoon nap.

“Two hours,” the woman said. “Two hours and that’s it. Any more and it’s extra.”

We went upstairs. Our room was on the second floor. There were other doors, all closed. The house was completely silent, as if all the rooms were empty, or as if everyone really did come here to sleep or to listen in silence to what was happening in the other rooms–what was about to happen in room seven, for instance, where the red-headed man was stepping aside now for me to enter.

A big room, a big bed covered with a purple spread, high windows with thick curtains, drawn so tightly that not a speck of sunlight filtered into the room, and in a corner, a washbasin and a bidet concealed behind another curtain. I looked around, not knowing what to do.

“It’s very nice.”

“Do you think so?”

It looked as if he was going to start his endless chatter again, so very quickly I said, “Yes, not bad at all,” and walked around, pretending to be interested in the prints of naked women in languid poses. But all the while I was thinking: He won’t be able to stop talking, I’ll have to keep putting him at his ease, he’ll just grope me halfheartedly and it’ll be awful, really awful.

“What now?”

“Get undressed.”

I didn’t move. I was expecting him to talk, expecting the same weary litany, the same vague and repetitive words, the same clumsy excuses.

He said nothing.

I turned my back on him and started taking off my dress. He’ll see now, I thought, he’ll see I’ve put on my best set of underwear–dark red lace as fine and shiny as silk, a half-cup bra to give extra uplift to the breasts–and he won’t be able to resist, he’ll undress me himself, the way Gilles does, sometimes gently, sometimes feverishly, depending on his mood, his hands will caress me through the material, eager to touch me, moving under my arms, around my breasts, slipping off the straps.

But nothing happened. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t compliment me on what I was wearing. And when at last I was naked, he still said nothing. I could feel him looking at me, but he didn’t seem the least bit aroused, he was looking at me with the eyes of a doctor or a horse dealer, coldly measuring and evaluating, concerned only with surfaces, the texture of the skin, the curve of the back.

“On your knees!”

I knelt by the bed. I used to kneel by the bed to say my prayers when I was a child. Margot used to kneel too, on her swollen knees. She was the one who taught me the words of the prayer. Thank you. Forgive me.

The man grabbed the back of my neck, forced my chest down onto the bed and then let go. Next, he placed his hands on my buttocks and started to knead them the way I used to knead dough for those fruitcakes Margot loved so much, that was how the man took the measure of my flesh, rapidly, with the flat of his hands, then suddenly he thrust his fingers into me, like a cook mixing currants or cherries with dough, or hiding a charm in the middle of a Twelfth Night cake.

“Lie down.”

I got up on the bed and lay on my stomach.

“Spread your legs.”

The orders were coming faster now.

“More.”

He grabbed my thighs and pulled them wide apart, then left me in that position.

There was a noise of paper being crumpled angrily, and in the expectant silence of the room, the sudden noise filled me with terror. The man slipped his hands under me and groped for my breasts. He kneaded them, went away, returned, and placed two pins on them. A sharp pain flooded me from my nipples to my armpits. I bit my wrists to stop myself from crying out and raised myself on my elbows, holding my breath. The man pushed me back down on the bed, squashing my chest onto the pins. They were plastic clothespins, just like the one that had fallen on the tiled floor of the caf” a little while before. My dream of metal brooches with chains and weights attached and all sorts of jewels puncturing my chest–that dream evaporated. I was the clothespin woman.

Again the noise of rustling paper, a noise that drove me crazy. I knew what it was now. The man had a bag with him, a bag full of things. He must have been hiding it under his leather jacket. And now he was getting ready to take something else out.

With quick, skillful movements, he tied a scarf over my eyes. Then I heard a purring sound, and suddenly the thing was inside me, it didn’t seem especially large, but the man pushed it deep inside then pulled it out, more paper noises, and there was something else inside me, something bigger this time, which moved and hummed. I was breathing hard, my hands clutching at the sheets, searching desperately for something to hold on to. The thing came out, more rustling of paper, then the man was on top of me, crossing my wrists and winding a rope around them three times and pulling it very tight, all with the same rapid and precise movements. I could feel something new at the entrance to my vagina, something that didn’t move or make a noise, he rammed it in brutally and it dilated me, swelled inside me, it was stiff and yet flexible, he pushed it in deeper, deeper still, I felt as if I was going to explode, I lifted my chest in panic, but he just kept punching it into me like a maniac, my belly was a bell and this monstrous clapper kept striking against it, I could feel my vagina now against the abdominal wall, as if the thing was going to burst through my skin near the navel, I never imagined it was possible to go so far, so high, in such an unheard-of direction, the thing kept right on, relentlessly, as if it had a life of its own, and at last I let myself go and cried out, I cried that I was afraid, afraid, afraid, my vagina was on fire, my mucous membranes consumed by the flames, the clapper and the bell had become one inside me, tolling with the urgency of an alarm, soon it would be too late, the entire landscape would be razed to the ground, laid waste forever. In a last violent reflex of survival, at the limits of pain and exhaustion, my muscles rebelled, my knees lifted, my back arched, I wriggled like an eel, and the thing slipped out and landed against my thigh, still twitching uselessly.

For a fraction of a second, there was silence. An eternity, punctuated by the sharp pain in my breasts and the fire in my belly. The paper noise started up again, and my skull echoed with rustlings that seemed to emerge from the walls and the ceiling, making the room a huge echo chamber. In my struggle, the blindfold had moved, and I could see an area of wallpaper with a gold filigree pattern, then the man jumping naked onto the bed, his torso narrow and sweating. I didn’t know when he’d undressed, or why, but he’d kept his socks on, gray woollen socks like the ones maids used to knit, and I felt disgusted, I imagined he must have warts or deformed feet. In a flash, I remembered my own wart, a little whitish circle, healed now. I had all the hours I spent at the swimming pool to thank for it. I got salicylic acid from the drugstore, and day after day I’d put it on and watch the imperfection burn, watch the skin get whiter and shrivel and become painful. For a while, it looked as if the root infection would spread to the whole foot, and I wouldn’t be able to walk anymore. I’d scratch it and rub it with lime and put the acid on again, over a period of weeks. And I’d make love with Gilles with my feet stuck to the bed so that he shouldn’t notice anything. Ridiculous. Ridiculous that love should be tainted by such reflexes, that there was always a wart somewhere, always litter lying about in the most beautiful landscape, always Japanese tourists in front of the Mona Lisa. The only love that wasn’t ridiculous was chaste love, the love of maids–Margot, where are you, see what the world is coming to, what my thoughts have come to–I’m looking at the gray socks of a man who’s torturing me, and thinking of my wart.

I closed my eyes, determined to keep them closed. The pain in my breasts was fading, the pins were still there but there was no longer anything squashing them, and now my wrists were being untied and my arms spread wide on the bed. Then a strap landed on my belly and my thighs. My skin became inflamed in patches, up to the edge of the pubic hair, and it was clear the man knew what he was doing, going around the sensitive area like that, demarcating it, in a way, while leaving it intact, striking just at the border–my cunt was like a top that he was spinning around faster and faster with every blow. The man struck savagely but methodically, without uttering a word, and I didn’t cry out, but my whole body jumped as if it had a life of its own, unrestrained by my mind, unaffected by fear or anger. I felt no emotion, I let my body do all the work, let it jump and fall back. My arms, my head, and my knees were against my chest now, as if I wanted to enter myself, become my own fetus, but I didn’t want anything, anything at all, it was the body that wanted, it was the body that left only the back exposed, like a snail its shell. Untroubled by my change of position, the man continued striking my back with his invisible strap. He himself was invisible, even in my mind. The one-dimensional image I had of him, from before he pushed me onto the bed, bore no relation at all to my perception of the man who was bending me double with these stinging blows. It couldn’t be the same man–no normal person could believe that. The distance was too great. This man could kill me.

“Open!” he cried. But I couldn’t, my whole body refused. The man stopped hitting me. Calmly, he unfolded me, opening my legs and my arms with such authority that I just lay there in a crucified position. I thought he was going to kill me, and I waited to feel his hand on my throat. But it was something else that came and brushed against my lips.

“Suck! Suck!” he cried. My brain felt empty. I began to suck his latex-clad cock. He placed his hand flat on my skull and tipped my head up toward him, forcing it to move backward and forward, as if I were a doll with a movable neck. His protected cock was just one more thing, he touched me only with things. I wanted to touch his naked skin. I tried, grasping his wrist and squeezing it so hard, I could have broken it.

But he misunderstood. “You like it, don’t you? Anyone would think you’ve been doing it all your life.”

I spat out his cock. I felt nauseous.

“Go tell that to my boyfriend!” I cried.

I thrust the word “boyfriend” at him like a shield, a lance, a war cry. My boyfriend, my lover, my treasure, my deep wound, the wound that makes me limp, that bites my heels, the tenacious wart I squash beneath my foot when I make love and burn maliciously, day after day, creating a mess, a massacre. It takes time to find your new skin, my angel. To carry the fire into the wound. To burn the sickness of love to the root.

“Sure I’ll tell him,” the man said calmly. “I’ll tell him you’re the biggest slut I’ve ever buggered, the whoriest whore of them all.” Suddenly he yelled: “Say sorry, slut!”

Now. Now he was going to kill me. I wasn’t a real slut. I’d never be one, however hard I tried. It was too far from me, as inaccessible as Margot’s pure soul. That was why I deserved to die. I cried out I was sorry, sorry I wasn’t a slut, sorry I’d never been able to see things right through to the end, had never gone to the end of anything, sorry that degradation was no more within my reach than beauty was. I said sorry, I cried that it was ridiculous, I was ridiculous, and I doubled up, mowed down by a volley of tears like gunshots, a dismembered puppet who would soon be on the front pages of the papers, the latest victim of the red-headed man, the red-headed man has struck again ”

He didn’t kill me. He was silent for a moment, without moving, as if my words had thrown him. I took advantage of the pause to bend my legs again and hold them tight to my belly. I didn’t want anything more on my breasts, anything more in my vagina, I was protecting myself like an animal, my exhaustion at last complete.

“Calm down,” the man said.

I unclenched my fists and my legs went limp. All he had to do now was unfold me and stretch me out and take off the pins, which he did. Immediately, the relaxation spread from the liberated area to the rest of my body. The absence of pain was an infinite pleasure. The man knelt and began to massage my breasts, then my belly, quickly but gently. There was no love in what he was doing, not even compassion, he was simply putting me back in working order, like a worn-out machine. He did it for a while, then lay down next to me. I was breathing weakly. I felt numb. From a long way away, I heard a final order:

“Don’t fall asleep!”

His voice was dry. Maybe he would kill me if I fell asleep. Maybe he had to control himself not to go as far as that–his hands on my neck, pulling the scarf tighter and tighter. I licked his side, like an animal. His skin was smooth and incredibly soft, bathed in sweat. My tongue moved, working like a terrified animal, to arouse him–it was the only way to survive. The man didn’t flinch. So I continued, my eyes closed, licking higher, as far as the nipples, then down to the groin. I opened my eyes and saw his blond pubic hair against his cock, and ate his blond hair, my mouth full of it, and licked his cock. He took off the condom and let me go ahead. He was like a kitten with its mother. I licked him the way a mother cat licks its young, with application. He was weak now, he could have been my child, perhaps I was giving birth to him at that very moment. He didn’t know it, not yet, and began to speak in a toneless voice:

“I don’t get a hard-on easily.”

He said it straight out, without hesitation, just like one of his orders.

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied, my mouth against his cock. “I can do this for hours.”

I thought it and set about it. My whole being was devoted to that one thing–getting him to come, if possible. It was a kind of compassion, but it didn’t come from me. It was something I learned from Gilles, who’s often talked about it–how he’s concerned only for my pleasure, how he puts himself second, ready to tire himself out to make me come. At that moment I was transmitting to the red-headed man a skill that wasn’t mine. But maybe it’s always like this–you’re the servant of your lover, and you shouldn’t expect anything in return but the assurance that the gift will be passed on to someone else, another child, whether virile or impotent.

The red-headed man didn’t say if he liked it. Maybe he didn’t feel anything. He touched my hair with his hand, very lightly, like a breath, and I knew that he was no longer in command. Those trembling fingers, that directionless gesture, told me that his body was separating from his will, surrendering to a nameless sweetness. It took a long time for him to come, a very long time, and when he felt that he was almost there–his cock, in my mouth, started to tremble with an independent life that I found strangely moving– the man pulled himself away from me, leaving me empty, and straightened up. I opened my eyes and saw him on his knees in front of me, his face closed and hard, and down below, his hand jiggling his cock mechanically with a kind of objectless hatred.

“I’m going to come over you.”

And that’s what he did, like when you pee on the grass, straight in front of you, and watch the grass shrivel and go yellow, stung by the acid water, that’s the way he came over me, and I felt the hot drops hit me and slide down my face and stick to my eyelids.

“I can’t see.”

He took a corner of the sheet and wiped my eyes.

“Say thank you!”

I said thank you, and repeated it in an exhausted voice, like a beloved name. It was such a relief to say the words that I forgot to cry out, to feel nauseous, forgot I wanted to kill him.

Thank you. I say it today. Or rather, everything says it for me. Because I went through with it. I didn’t shy away. So many people don’t go through with it. I did, and the whole world is crying out its gratitude. It’s midday, I’m walking home from the travel agency, along the boulevard. The kittens were born four days ago, I’ve been bleeding for five days, and for the first time I can feel the light and the shade, the coolness of the trees and the mildness of the air, on my skin. Before, everything stopped at my eyes. Now my whole body is open, and calm waves ripple through it. I must be smiling at the people I pass, or walking with a light but confident step, to judge by the looks I get, gentle looks, pleasantly surprised looks. So much gentleness, combined with the sharpness of my sensations, makes me want to die. Everything is in everything, the trees are in me and I’m in the serene faces of the passersby, and in the more enigmatic faces of the pigeons, the dogs, and the children. A subtle choreography regulates the smallest details. For once, everything has its place and its role in the dance, without encroaching on its neighbors. Even the cars glide on a cushion of air, the squealing of brakes and honking of horns seem to be thrown into the aural tapestry like a shower of toffees on a birthday. Everything is borne along on a single wave, and I carry the wave inside me as I walk, as if pregnant with it, my body marked with blows, swollen like a fresh bud. I carry life, that voracious creature, in the very places where I was hit–on the belly, on the cheeks–and men look at me as if I’m twenty, and the trees greet me with great impassioned gestures, and the wind swells me like a sail, I am a ship thrusting forward in a big beautiful storm.

I come back to the apartment and find Douce suckling her kittens. I stay and watch them. For a long time. Then Gilles phones, and his voice reaches not only my ears and part of my brain, but also the secret spot, the sensitive triangle between my shoulder blades.

“Hi, darling. How are you?”

I feel like kissing the receiver, eating the sound of that voice that will never abandon me, that will keep coming back for news of my breasts and belly and blood.

“I’m fine.”

Then he asks me a question that takes me by surprise: “Tell me, when you were with that guy, what exactly were you looking for?”

“I wanted to cry,” I answer, very quickly. “Just that, to cry.”

“And did you cry?”

I barely hesitate. “No. I didn’t come, I didn’t cry. Nothing happened.”

“Nothing?” Gilles says. “Nothing?” He laughs triumphantly, reducing my stupid gratitude to ashes. “All you managed to do was make yourself dirty and ridiculous!”

Well, at least that’s something new, I tell myself–and I feel my flesh suddenly cracking up, reduced to sharp little pieces of ice–there hasn’t been enough between you and me that was ridiculous, my darling, nor anything dirty either. There’s been only beauty, that fucking beauty of love, something like the Mona Lisa’s smile behind bullet-proof glass, worn out by the flashes of the cameras, that fucking vision, that vision you’re obliged to see, you’ve seen it, like you’ve seen everything, you don’t even know what you were looking for any more.

“OK, I agree. It was dirty and ridiculous. But listen to me, Gilles, listen carefully–I did it once, and now it’s over.”

That’s really what I think. It’s what I was thinking on the journey back, in the train. I looked out at the landscape, the peeling back walls of suburban buildings, embankments invaded by wild grass and the kind of shrubs you don’t see anywhere else, savage, neglected, abnormally vigorous. I remember monstrous plants, with whitish corollas–I thought they were hemlock. “Giant hogweed,” the red-headed man corrected. That got him talking about his vegetable garden, the rhubarb that grew there in profusion–if I wanted, he could cut me a few stems– and the animals he looked after whenever the neighbors went on vacation, three dogs, a rabbit, and a canary. I told him Douce had given birth to three lovely kittens–did he want one? He laughed a bit without looking at me, saying that other people’s dogs were enough for him, and the canary he let out from time to time to fly around the living room.

By the time we got off the train, the sun had faded from the wall with the red roses. The platform was deserted, the black cat nowhere to be seen. I noticed for the first time that there were two white lines running on either side of the track, and it struck me that they must continue like that, uninterrupted, all the way to the city, that someone must have painted them patiently for that specific purpose. It didn’t cross my mind that they were there only to keep passengers from going too close to the edge of the platform. To me, they were there to lead you on, to hypnotize you into wanting to leave–even the train obeyed those white lines and not the tracks. I thought of Margot following the white lines on foot whenever there was a strike.

In front of the station, the man asked me if I wanted to see him again. I didn’t know.

“I have a boyfriend,” I repeated, indecisively.

But I was really thinking about the blood, questioning the burning between my legs. I would see what the blood said. If it stayed or if it went. Or if the wound became infected.

“It was very good,” I said. ‘really. But I don’t know if I want to do it more than once.”

His face was flat again, his eyes downcast, his smile weary.

“Answer the other women,” I added. ‘don’t rely just on me.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t want to answer the other women now.”

I told myself it was only natural. I was different from the other women who answer ads because I wasn’t looking for anything. I’d simply had a dream, and chance had given me the illusion that I could make it come true. As for the rest, I didn’t need anyone. Beauty, health, upbringing, affection–I had received more than the average woman. But that didn’t mean I had to respond to the fantasies of every man who was abandoned at birth ”

“Phone me on Monday.”

What I was thinking was that it’s easier to dump a guy over the phone.

The next day, Gilles arrived as I was looking at myself in the mirror. As I said before, he saw the marks on my body and made love to me.

I should mention that later, as I walked with him to his car, he started crying. It must have been eleven o’clock, maybe even midnight, the air smelled of the canal, the buses that passed on the street were empty.

“You could have lost me,” Gilles said tragically, with his hand on the car door.

I could have sworn he had tears in his eyes, or at least in his voice. I don’t mind that in a man, but just then they seemed out of place. I laughed.

“Lost you? Why?”

And then Gilles hit me, full in the face. I didn’t cry out. “Thank you,” I whispered, and buried my head in his shoulder. He wanted me desperately, he said, with a kind of terror, but we couldn’t make love in the middle of the street, and besides, it was late, he had to get home to his wife and kids, and anyway, the blood between my legs put a stop to everything for the moment. So I told him I loved him, in a low, neutral voice, because I didn’t want to shatter the hope I had–the hope that he would hit me again, the hope that he would replace the red-headed man–Gilles, with his beautiful eyes, his long lashes, his tall frame, and his cock that gets hard as soon as I brush against him.