Pour la peau

by Emmanuelle Richard

Translation sample by Sandra Smith
 

            The first bead on the rosary is an image. His index finger and thumb holding my right wrist – for just a second. A ring around my skin, a handcuff. Afterwards there would be many other images, precious, fleeting, each one leaving a scar and all of them collected over a very short time, whisky, rum, Valium, codeine, a siesta on a beach with a strange man asleep in my arms, more whisky, a lot of whisky, a black car in the empty parking lot of La Grande Récré, the toy store where I work, mojitos, and sometimes gin and tonics for me, a hotel, some words to a song “Despite the evidence, we dance”, miles traveled in the passenger seat instead of someone else, the voice of that other woman on a file on an MP3 player, fragile and elegant as she sings “to the end of the night”. But I don’t know that yet.

************************

            The first time I see E. I find him somewhat if not completely ugly. His skin is gray and he’s smoking, those are the only things I notice.

************************

April

************************

            He was standing in front of the door of the address he used as an office. A green door that opened out into the street, at the end of a narrow hallway.

            He was surely in jeans. It was in the middle of spring.

            It was cloudy, rather mild, I wasn’t yet used to the climate in that area, I was dressed too warmly, a big scarf, an army jacket and sneakers. I was coming from work. I had no make-up on. For a long time I hadn’t been wearing make-up to go to work.

            He was probably wearing one of his countless checked shirts that were the only ones he could stand – I’m not sure about that day, I didn’t really look, only noticed things about him that you see without lingering on them, not in detail, when you meet someone you’re not interested in – an impeccably well-fitted shirt, or a polo, a T-shirt, no V neck in any case – except for a taupe Fred Perry shirt that he would wear at two important moments during the weeks we were together, I only ever saw him in a checked shirt.

            I remembered he was wearing good shoes.

            Or rather, no, I don’t remember.

            I simply “deduce” it as I’m writing this so I can bear his absence (for if I write about E., it’s really to transform him into a “motif”, to retain the gracefulness of his obstinate profile whenever he lit a cigarette, yes, but especially to confirm the inorganic end to our story that we barely lived out, to convince myself that there is no possible way back, even though “knowing”, I can’t manage to “accept” it). The next time, he was in sneakers, that I did notice, he must have made that choice for me, to arouse my interest, to “put himself at my level”, to try to look younger that way, and by believing that presumptuous assumption, I’d found him ridiculous.

            I remember very precisely that I barely looked at him the first time and that still astonishes me today.

            Only the way he spoke seemed incredible to me, and his complexion, the surprising color of his skin – I only knew why afterwards – left me speechless even though I didn’t stare at him.

            I also must have noticed his tall, adolescent physique that struck me as another bizarre thing, out of the corner of my eye, a glancethat did not linger.

            I remember in spite of everything having talked about my thoughts, about his shoes, to the guy I’d left after six years of love, the one I’d loved madly, tenderly, and whom I’d left by mutual agreement – and, as for that expression used to end so many affairs, “by mutual agreement”, E. made this remark: “there’s always one person who agrees more than the other” and I didn’t know, when he first said that, how much those words were omens of the painful sadness to come, my realization of his brutal absence. The man who showed me the studio apartment that day was wearing Stan Smith trainers, that second time we met, so I could give him some paperwork he needed for my file.

            I remember, after that second meeting, cruelly questioning myself out loud in the passenger seat of the car – we were driving to the outskirts of the city, to the countryside; towards the little development where the kitten with the dark patch on its nose we’d adopted in September was waiting for us, us heading there, to that place that we wanted to believe would be somewhere we could have a fresh start, deliberately ignoring the countless signs telling of the forthcoming end of everything that had created the “us” that we still were; towards what would soon be our former home together; a common memory we would no longer be able to share if we stopped seeing each other. We had left Paris too quickly, running away. So I questioned myself, about the probability that this man had been thinking, that morning, while putting on – choosing? – his shoes, and what they meant. Was I flattered? No. Or rather, hardly, very little, given my interest in this man – which was almost none – I had slightly ridiculed his strange verbal incontinence as we walked through the unfamiliar streets during our meetings for the showings.

            I was thinking these things out loud, in the passenger seat of the car driven by the guy I’d left and who still loved me, without a care for how much I was hurting him. At that moment, I hardly felt I was being hurtful or cruel, participating in the playful game shared by everyone in love and which goads the other’s jealousy, and we were still in that place, in love, for a few more weeks, since we were living together, because we didn’t hate each other, because we still sometimes made love and because I didn’t find that other man attractive.

            Writing this, I ask myself this question: how do you move from indifference to contempt to curiosity, then to desire and finally to being in love? At what moment did I begin to really look at E.? At what moment did I begin to find E. attractive? At what moment did I have the intense impression of “seeing” him completely, and being thunderstruck by it? At what moment did the wild desire to belong to that man, no matter what the cost, in a way I had never before desired to belong to anyone, simply to belong to him, so I could lose myself and merge with him, forget I exist and, simply, essentially, guard his body, take care of him? At what moment did I fall?

************************

            The second rosary bead is a scene that happened at the end of a summer’s day: both of us slightly tipsy, a neat whisky on the coffee table for him, a whisky and Coke for me, me in his round orange armchair from the 1970s, him on the couch, his head leaning against the back of it, his eyelashes fanning out, his expression somewhat lost in space, the music from the speakers and Marianne de Vandaveer playing, “Marianne you knew the cost/It was a temporary fix”, him always singing at the precise moment those words came around – he who almost never sang but always at the precise moment those words came around – singing the refrain in English, “It was a temporary fix”, his face growing dark, another premonition, the words “fix” and “temporary” summing up no doubt what we were going to mean to each other – or was he thinking about her when he said those words, summing up their affair? – we listened to that song a lot in July whenever we met, I asked him if the young woman he had left was pretty, and that was one of the only times I allowed myself to mention her. The rest of the time I didn’t talk about it. His eyelashes fanning out, eyes closed, he sighs, as if her beauty was too great to be expressed in words. In a flash, the thought ran through me that I wanted to be loved by this man the way he loves her.

            But that isn’t how it starts, not at all, on the contrary, it starts with the rediscovery of solitude and freedom, it starts by an plan on my part, signing on to dating sites on line, a site for extramarital meet-ups in particular, it starts by the belief that I want to rediscover my body and my desire, forgotten for too long, and by the certainty that I was going to summon my desire whenever I pleased and any time it suited me: a fierce desire for controlled sexual relations with new men, a great number of men to touch, married men; and especially no one in love, no one available. I want to go back in time and forget when I was in a couple. I want my time to be my time. I want to spend what time I have left after work selfishly, to read and write, and occasionally or frequently to make love, whenever I decide, decide by myself.

            It begins with great sexual hunger, an intense force, a desire for coarseness, even brutality, and the refusal to feel anything for a long time to come.

            First time, second time, third time, the rosary, first bead, second bead, third bead? second time, first time, second time, indifference or curiosity?, first time,

            the first time I see E. he is annoyed, when I get there he is smoking, I can see that he’s annoyed right away as I could tell in advance from his sharp tone on the telephone, it’s past 3:30 and I’m late, I got lost, I didn’t know there were two Rue Lefrancs here, I’d naively followed the GPS that took me to the north of the city and found myself right on time in front of the house with the same number on the street with the same name, parked in front of the address of the meeting set up with his office, a house on a street with lots of houses, “Strange place for an office,” that’s what I thought, I didn’t ring the bell, I preferred to call him right away, he came outside, didn’t see anyone and he was already annoyed and it took us a few minutes to work it out, to understand the problem. By the time I headed back to the center of town, towards Victoire, my right on time had changed to half an hour late and my calmness, hearing that harsh voice, had turned to stress.

            It’s an ad for a studio 25 square meters I find on the leboncoin.fr website 440 Euros bills included. Town center. Newly redecorated. Quiet, at the back of the building. Exactly what I’m looking for. When I dialed the number, I got a woman who told me the apartment had already been rented but she had other similar ones she could offer if I would kindly dial another number that she gave me after looking for it for a few seconds. “This person can take you to see them,” she added before abruptly hanging up, and she didn’t tell me who the person was or how she knew him. Eager, I called right away. This time I got a dry, curt voice, a man’s voice.

            I think I’ve gotten a wrong number. The discussion is halting, awkward, terse.

            I think… What do I think, in fact? That I’m dealing with a bitter, aging man, the kind of man who’s a bachelor or a widower, living by himself, keeping well away from everyone, with only his dog to keep him company, surely a dirty, pale, yellow, aggressive mutt who looks like his master; the kind of man who only went out in the morning to avoid people and buy bread and who did his errands with a shopping cart; or a madman – I truly think he’s mad. I tell myself that this guy must be the owner’s handyman, a kind of caretaker, a sad character. The discussion is brief and contains no niceties. A meeting is set up for me the next day, Tuesday at 3:00.

            I do know, when I think back to when I first spoke to him, that I also thought I had never heard such an unpleasant voice.

            As unpleasant as the sound of a fingernail scraping along a cardboard box.

            “Sick” was the word that instantly came to mind when I heard that voice for the first time, E.’s voice.

            First time, second time, I’m going around in circles, I don’t know any more, I know precisely when my desire was aroused, but all the rest?