by Nina Leger
translated by Linda Coverdale
She slips it into her mouth.
She lets it grow warm, take on weight, size, and shape, press against her palate, lie heavy on her tongue.
Lips motionless; tiny internal contractions: she has stripped all agitation from the act.
She thinks of the paper flowers that unfold when floated on water.
She draws back and considers the erect organ.
Uniform sky, dove-gray oilcloth stretched between the towers; the cars hold the horizon fast; at regular intervals, the varnished brown of a lamppost interrupts the row of trees; cops on bikes glide by, leering at bridal boutiques: banal geometrymatched by Jeanne’s breathing, thoughts, and footsteps.
She walks up the boulevard.
But she veers off, crosses over, and that angle broken into her trajectory is enough to split space the way a metal nail tears the whole length of any fabric it snags. The city collapses, loses its horizontal and vertical coordinates: maelstrom of sky, trees, lampposts, bikes, dresses. The sign at the corner of a drugstore liquefies, flows into the election posters and grows sluggish, slides into the dead leaves, upends the asphalt, swallows the secondhand-clothing racks in the Guerrisol store along with its iron shutter, consumes the sidewalk. Jeanne is engulfed.
A malaise, they think, when she leans against a shop window—breathes in, breathes out—when the flat coolness of the glass goes through her blouse and chills her shoulder blades—breathes in, breathes out—when she closes her eyes and tilts her head back—breathes in, [SIC]
it’s always when she tilts her head back.
Jeanne has closed the curtain; the light, now green, has filled the room like water.
Jeanne listens to the hotel noises: elevator climbing up its cables, doors slamming, a vacuum cleaner in the background. It’s almost noon. The tourists have left to play their parts on the squares of Paris; their rooms are empty: housekeeping is in charge again. A cart of towels and mini-shampoos approaches, slows down, but the room is protected by the sign hanging from the doorknob and ordering, in red capital letters: DO NOT DISTURB. The cart resumes its progression. Soon its creaking fades into the far reaches of the carpet. The elevator stops moving, the surrounding doors are closed for the night, the vacuum cleaner falls silent. Outside the room, all grows calm, and then Jeanne concentrates on the confined space, on the up-and-down of her hand, and lips, and the compressed breathing that limits options. [qui descend des hauteurs makes no sense to me.]
She applies her tongue to the compact organ; her saliva follows the contours of the veins, wets her fingers—which she keeps gripped around the base of the shaft, their joints smooth and white from the pressure—and meanders among the hairs, clumping their curls.
As if feeling for a hold on a slippery rock, the man places a hand on Jeanne’s shoulder. She shrugs free, tightening her lips around his penis. In the corner of her vision, behind the man’s pelvis, an aloe vera performs motionless contortions; bed, lamps, and chairs are floating, aquatic.
it’s [SIC] always when she tilts her head back. A malaise, they think, because what else to think when catching sight of that back pressed against the facades, that head tilted up, that hand churning the air, those knees slightly bent in the disorder of that body apparently about to plummet suddenly to the ground, a vertical descent like a tower’s slumping into a heap? A malaise, they think, for they’re unaware that she is swooning without weakness, that she knows the means to her ends, and that always, when she tilts her head back, a male voice—sometimes confident and street-savvy [routarde], sometimes quavering from the get-go—asks her, Are you all right?
What do the face, height, build, or belly matter: she pays them not the slightest attention—for nothing, in a man’s appearance, ever provides a preview of his genitals.
She builds a memory palace, and as she stocks it with new genitalia, it becomes a complex of halls, annexes, and outbuildings. The doors there are always multiplying.
She could have taken photos and made a collection, she could have kept up a notebook of sketches or accounts, relied on a spreadsheet or personal diary, entrusted to others her somewhat retouched memories; she could have forgotten—but she preferred to construct a palace.
Each section of the edifice welcomes the memory of a particular set of genitalia and assures its storage. When Jeanne enters this area, she finds once more the form, the outline, the special warmth, the density, the smell of the genitals, the elasticity of the tissues and their color when they stretch or shrink, the polished or glossy look of the glans, the network of bluish vessels, the shadowy zones, the skin of the scrotum with its fingerprint wrinkles, the pattern of the pubic hairs.
Although the rooms conserve the intact memory of the genitalia, nothing else gets in there: the man disappears, his image consumed in Jeanne’s close-up gaze.
She keeps collecting, but seeks nothing: she is not hunting for the prize that would surpass all others and give meaning to her explorations by bringing them to an end. She gathers in without comparing, increases without evaluating, without preference or disdain. The map of the palace assures the horizontality of the structures, and Jeanne is not subject to sudden infatuations: no find ever becomes a special fetish, not even for a moment.
Jeanne does without intrigues that burnish the facts; she takes the shock of the sex full on. Her sexual geography is composed of places through which bodies pass without giving any hint of individual people: shopping malls, public transportation, boulevards or avenues. She avoids dedicated spaces, intended for approches, cruising, and seduction: bars, small restaurants, nightclubs, lounges where sex is won via detours and reconnaissance, where every word, every gesture seeks an end it would be crude and impolite to make explicit. Periphrase, nonchalance, and harmless chatter are all the fashion.
Where does she take the bodies she meets?
Neither to the corners of portes-cochères, nor to the lobbies of drowsing buildings, nor to parking lots, restrooms, swimming-pool cabanas, phone booths, offices, nor to elevators or stairways: she has barred communal and public places from the fantasy.
She does not take them home, or follow them home, either: a residence would reflect a daily routine and the objects would be entirely absorbed into a lifestyle narrative—producing an overall effect intended to express a past, a present, and future aspirations, display tastes and attachments, and distill a slight (but corrosive) intimacy.
Once, at the very beginning, she began to sway in front of a red-brick facade. At the same moment, a man emerged from the building. He had offered his assistance; she had agreed to go up to his place. His door made noises that had lingered in her mind: an espagnolet lock had opened, proved stubborn, taken some punishment, then yielded loudly, relieved at being vanquished. The apartment: beige carpet, big closets, a sofa bed he had insisted on unfolding (but only after offering Jeanne a glass of water), two windows overlooking a park, window-boxes without any flowers, the sounds of children across the street, the smell of spices, pale-yellow bed linens. These elements formed a whole that some people would call a life, and others, an existence, but which, whatever it was called, could not be taken apart/taken to pieces/disassembled. [This depends on your title, which depends on how the rest of the book reads.] The man’s penis was a part of that. In Jeanne’s memory, its color was inseparable from the pale yellow of the sheets and the beige of the carpet, its curve broken by the slanting light striking the glass of water, and its silence muddled by the children’s cries that welled up in fits and starts. Thus encumbered, it could not pass through the palace gates and followed the trajectory of ordinary memories. Today, Jeanne would be at a loss to describe it. She does, however, remember the glass of water, the closets, the park, the bare window-boxes.
Given the exclusion of all the other possible places, only hotels offered the neutrality vital to Jeanne’s activities. She has become an authority on them, and her map of Paris is dotted with addresses she knows by heart. Hôtel Agate, Hôtel Prince Albert, Hôtel Prince Monceau, Hôtel Coypel, Hôtel Nord & Champagne, Hôtel Edgar Quinet, Comfort Hôtel Lamarck, Seven Hôtel, Park & Suites Prestige Paris Grande Bibliothèque, Adagio City Aparthotel Montrouge, Ibis Budget Paris Porte de Vanves, Mercure Paris Porte de Versailles, Hôtel Kyriad Italie Gobelins, Hôtel Kyriad Bercy Village, Hôtel Kyriad Montparnasse, Hôtel Magellan, Hôtel Fiat . . . She loves their rooms, which belong to nothing more than their numbers: 12, 208, 5, 43—off-ground spaces, occupied and fictitiously possessed for an instant. Once inside, one may indulge in the grandest licentiousness, in the tenderest intimacies or the crudest obscenities, exposing to the walls of the unknown room what one would never reveal to the most devoted confidants. Once outside again, leave the key at the front desk—and the erasure of all evidence is organized immrdiately: the sheets are washed, the towels changed, the surfaces wiped down. Cleaning frees the room from all possession, assuring its availability and amnesia. The image of bodies that a few hours earlier seemed about to rip the sweat-soaked sheets is dissolved in a bleach solution and swirled down the drain with the waste water. What the next client discovers is a perfectly new and virgin world.
Jeanne appreciates the clear-cut procedures, the impeccable repetitiousness of hotel rooms: every object there is guaranteed a serial identity, even the decorative flourishes. If she finds a bouquet on a bedside table, she is reassured to consider that the room next door is likely to have the same bouquet in the same vase, sitting on the same table, and that this holds true for the next room and the next one and the next one as well, as if a single room had been created once, then inserted between two mirrors and replicated into infinity. Jeanne studies the multiplied pinkening of the flowers until they disappear into a nontransferable vanishing point. Satisfied, she now double-locks the door and, with her hand on the lock closing her in with a stranger, she reads in a low voice the notice on the back of that door: Breakfast 12 €, Occupancy Tax 60 cts, Pet Surcharge 4 €; Instructions in Case of Fire; Evacuation Map: You Are Here.
These gray words are for her the hyper-discreet harbingers of a basic-hotel-room orgy.
There had been a beginning. [I like this more than “There was a beginning.”]
That day when Jeanne’s gaze settles on the coppery gleam of a man’s zipper.
Métro Line 13, the car’s jolting motion hampering a stubborn accordionist, and the man, seated opposite her, at whose crotch she is staring and who, thus observed, is petrified.
The woman sitting to the man’s right senses danger: her attention flutters at the surface of the male face, reading its meter, and identifies the spot where the terrain diverges from its usual topography. The edge of the eyelid is the giveaway. It’s too prominent, stiff and trembling at the same time. The woman shifts to what the eye is staring at: Jeanne, eyelids lowered, tunnel vision, persistent gaze bearing down, boring into the folds of dark blue cloth and seeming to pop open, one by one, the tiny zipper teeth. The man doesn’t dare intervene. He could—very naturally—fold his hands there, cross his legs, rearrange part of his coat, but he sits still, stripped of his rights over his own crotch.
The woman stirs, would like to change seats, drag the man along with her, claim they’re getting off at the next stop and must stand up now, get ready, because the car is packed and otherwise they’ll never manage to get to the door in time. But she is as frozen as her husband, imprisoned by the complex of inactions that holds Jeanne’s contracted pupil in thrall.
When the train stops at Saint-Lazare, Jeanne lets go, rises, and leaves. The exhausted couple remain silent. They cling to this silence, reject the first word, leave their reproaches hanging; with their blurry outlines, their gray surface, these two attract no adjective. Of course, they will talk, but first they take advantage of having said nothing, of still not knowing for a moment what the first word will be, the first tone of voice, the first interrogation that will launch the spiral of ill-chosen phrases, awkward intonations, offensive questions, blunders, paranoias, and ancient resentments. They know that their grievances are impossible to formulate and justify, and therefore unsolvable. They know that no discussion will allow them to reach an agreement and that there can be no shared understanding of the event, only two camps, once allies, but henceforth each suspicious of the other’s active connivance in the slaughter that has just decimated their troops. Although a truce has been declared, it will never be a peace treaty: an imbalance will remain, a doubt, a suspicion. They were striding along so well together; from now on they will only hobble.
Jeanne stays close to the white-tiled walls. She follows the symbols for Line 14. Quick, precise footsteps, swinging metronome of arms and shoulders, head clear, so far so good, and the episode has been so absorbed into the vaguest layers of her consciousness that she’d be astonished to learn that she stared, through four métro stops, at a man’s crotch: the image seems never to have reached her brain. But the process has been set in motion, and although slow, it is inexorable.
She emerges into an underground plaza with a connection to Line 14: there the space opens up, as natural light showers down and dissolves the starkness of electricity. The severity of the tiles melts into a supple wall of creamy tints, the degree of reverberation changes gears, and sounds no longer dash down the axes of corridors but liquefy into muted humming that collapses in the depths of escalators.
That’s when the image strikes.
Jeanne becomes disjointed.
She leans back against the wall; breathes in, breathes out; the cold goes through her cotton pullover; she tilts her head up, tries to get a grip and, suddenly, the din condenses into one spot: a man who stops and offers to help her.
She takes him to the hotel.
She leaves the place twenty minutes later, the smell on her hands, a mini-soap bar in her pocket. She continues her interrupted journey, calls the doctor’s office, says she’ll be late, apologizes, thanks them for their patience, promises to arrive soon, apologizes again, hangs up—a mini-soap bar in her pocket, the smell on her hands.
Lulled by the alternating tunnels and stations, she believes that it was all something exceptional. A huge rush of hormonal excitement she’ll shape into a late-night anecdote to tell when parties are emptying out, when the mood gets more intimate, and people sitting in their patch of light hope to stay together for a few moments longer by making one another laugh with their confessions. Hers, for sure, will be an excellent bargaining chip. It’s got what it takes to spark both amazement and curiosity. Her audience will be enthralled, glued to their seats for as long as it takes. She’ll be the one to give the signal for departure; they’ll try to find out a little more, they’ll beg and fuss but then, when she won’t budge, they’ll let her leave. Some of them will call her the next day to continue the conversation.
Gare de Lyon—exit on the left and bleak neon lighting. Jeanne peers intently into the tropical garden held captive in the platform vitrines. Dark or acid greens, dripping branches, leaves erect or drooping sadly, bushy or flat like the blades of kayak paddles, glistening pistils, gray soil. Here real plants and plastic ones are mixed together, but reflections on the glass panels and the short pause in the station don’t leave time to tell the real from the fake.
The train speeds off; Jeanne doesn’t notice that a taxonomy of memory is taking shape, that the anecdote will become a way of life and that her stories will remain her secret. That first man—she is soon unable to recall his voice, his face, his height or weight. Only his genitals continue to appear before her. Brown, dark, but growing lighter at the mound of the glans, which becomes translucid, like an electric nightlight in a child’s bedroom.