The Real Life of Pretty Young Women
Translated by Sandra Smith
All desire has a goal but that goal is always obscure.
Innocent desire does not exist.
Camille felt as if she were wilting as she walked. Every step that took her further away from the Porte des Lions towards the Café de Flore brought her closer to the age when a woman feels her possibilities are becoming scarcer and scarcer. The idea of turning thirty can turn a penniless single woman into her own enemy. The slightest irritation causes negative effects: looking sad or bad, dark circles under the eyes through insomnia. The flower of youth is transformed into trash. Herbal teas, a good night’s sleep, nothing helps. Every young woman knows it, even if no one dares say it to them.
As she crossed the bridge, Camille caught a glimpse of her distorted reflection in the shop windows along the Quai Malaquais. She was so horrified that the idea of being seen by other people became unbearable. She had to stop, had to check herself in a mirror. She walked towards the antique shops but couldn’t see herself in any of their windows. What should she do? She felt incapable of facing the clientele in the Café de Flore right after going to the Ecole du Louvre where she had picked up her degree, the degree that had cost her five years of her youth. The part of the Louvre called “Le Pavillon de Flore” where her school was located and the café of the same name had nothing in common apart from the sound of the words. The two Flores are separated by more than a river. It’s an abyss. The abyss that separates the life of simple female students from the life of pretty young women.
Camille turned toward the museum, which seemed to her a tomb full of illusions. She thought of the words inscribed on the pediment of the Palais de Chaillot: He who passes will decide whether I am a tomb or a treasure… What came after that? Something about desire. But what did she know about desire?
At the corner of the Rue des Saints-Pères, she caught sight of a statue made of wood. A Saint John the Baptist, probably from the fifteenth century, German or Nordic. Camille was drawn to what she found disgusting in men: their feet. The ones on the statue were enormous, distorted, lumpy. How could someone have sculpted those feet with such love? She would never understand the patience shown by artists. She had to live before thinking herself worthless. And besides, no one and nothing could avoid crumbling, not even works of art. An auctioneer had once given her a list of objects that sold the least well at public auctions: Saint John the Baptist was one of them. Any Oceanian or African statue was worth ten times more than this old, bearded man draped in a lion’s skin.
Another image comes to mind, a poem she’d read in the past: lions’ cadavers are avenged antelopes. The avenged antelope… She smiled at that idea, and the link she felt between herself and the austere sculpture carved out of poplar vanished. Gone was the ghost of the bridge. She was funny, vivacious, joyful, slim, an antelope; she had the necessary weapons to meet the man she needed. Not the man she might love, but the one who would give a poor young woman what she needed. In our times, money, real money, the money that belongs to other people, not the money you earn, has a moral quality. The only one that could be bought, for almost nothing, a wisp of air, a soul. And Camille was ready to pay the price.
The June sun was rising to its full height, the wooden face of John the Baptist disappeared in the shadows of the passageway. Camille looked at her watch, it was nearly one o’clock, she’d be late for lunch. Leaving her anxieties behind, she started walking briskly, striding like a vengeful antelope, along the Rue des Saints-Pères.
Anyone who has not known the Left Bank of the Seine,
between the Rue Saint-Jacques and the Rue des Saints-Pères,
knows nothing about the life of man!
Honoré de Balzac
From the doorstep, Camille could see Anne, a beautiful woman with very short hair, sitting at their favorite table, at the back, on the right-hand side, talking on her phone. She made her way over and slipped down next to her to observe the room. Having lunch at the Flore always gave her secret joy, the feeling of belonging to a private club. The smoothness of the red leather on the seats, the shining oak tables, the sparkling conversations, the presence of well-known people in publishing and the movies, all these things affected her like a powerful remedy for melancholy. They ordered breast of chicken and salad and Camille began the conversation, following a ritual established a long while ago.
“What are you up to?”
“Heavy traffic, but moving. Two or three interesting cases here and there while Jean-Louis is in Australia. I don’t miss him at all since I’m planning to live with him in September. I’ve been thinking about Kamal Chalayan. I called his office on the pretext of looking at a painting; his secretary took my name but he never called me back.”
“Isn’t he married?”
“Yes. So what?”
“Who’s his wife?”
“Some old woman who gave him his start.”
Camille thought of a nasty joke. She told it to her friend, in spite of the risk involved (Anne might use it against her one day).
“With a bit of luck, she’ll soon be in her grave…”
Anne started to laugh, and Camille liked that, she was flattered. Don’t we prefer people we amuse rather than people who amuse us?