Authors: James Salter
Tags: #Romance, #Classics
An odyssey which ends–Dean is shocked–in disaster, in a great, frothing kettle where the prince is scalded to death, still brave, still honest… She shrugs over the soup at the abruptness of it all. Dean sits silent. He is drained of all invention and also aware, for the first time, that she is fully able to speak, to create images strong enough to alter his life.
They return to the hotel at ten. The corridors are empty. Shoes are set outside each room. The catch of the door makes a little click as it closes and with that sound, Dean suddenly awakes. He turns the bolt. They are safe. The city is his. No one in it is more powerful. Hushed in sleep it lies, white specks of frost on its windows, steeped in the cold. No one is more blessed, more demonic.
In the bathroom she stands naked before the thin mirror. Dean appears behind her. His hands, all reverence at first, like those of men reprieved, move to possess her. Tenderly he weighs her breasts.
“I would look very well in that suit,” she reflects.
With no resonance, he says, “
“This one grew first,” she says.
“Is that true?” Dean says inanely.
“He was always bigger.
He becomes attentive to the smaller.
“Poor baby,” he murmurs.
Above the basin on a glass shelf: her bottles. Biodop, one of them reads. Her stockings lie crumpled on the floor. Over the radio:
Nights of Spain
. The suit, he remembers, had a belt which was a gleaming, leather thong.
They have turned off the light. In the room there is a huge
, a wicker basket, chairs. A metal tree on which garments can be hung. The ceiling is very high. In its center–one’s eyes must become accustomed to the dark–a grotesque fixture. The hours pass. She is pinioned on the bed, her arms trapped beneath her, her legs forced wide. Her eyes are closed. The radio is playing
. The world has stopped. Oceans still as photographs. Galaxies floating down. Her cunt tastes sweet as fruit.
Morning. She lies face down, warm still from sleep. Her arms are up on either side of her head, the elbows bent. Dean is on top of her, encircling, in the early light, and they are fucking like weight lifters. He pauses at last. He leans over to admire her, she does not see him. Hair covers her cheek. Her skin seems very white. He kisses her side and then, without force, as one stirs a favorite mare, begins again. She comes to life with a soft, exhausted sound, like someone saved from drowning.
Her narrow, cool back commanding the breakfast. The waiter who brings it does not even glance towards the bed. When he is gone she jumps up and, still naked, prepares the trays. In the noiseless light she opens the
, diligent as a maid, spreads them evenly with butter, arranges them back on the plates. Her flesh shines. It draws him. He moves to stay near her, like a child, hoping she will smile at him, give him a taste. He feels like jumping around, making noise, she is so occupied, so serene. She opens the
. Put some here, he wants to say. Grab her around the waist. Dance. He kisses her elbow. She glances at him and smiles.
Place Stanislas on a still Sunday morning. Windows through which the silence of Nancy pours, borne by the pure light. It is in this city that she was born, in one melancholy autumn of the war. Her father had already left home to live with his mistress. Her mother was alone. A cold winter that year, a snowy winter, hard as stone, ice gleaming in the sunshine along the roofs. A winter which somehow formed her though she could not speak as much as a single word.
The remains of breakfast lie littered about like a feast from the night before. Across the street is the opera, touches of gold on the balcony railing, posters invisible below.
Lucie de Lammermoor
will be here, dark letters printed on violet.
La Vie Bohème
. They have gone back to bed and lie almost enclosed in a second sleep, the radio weak, her fingers lightly, the skin draws tight beneath them, tracing his balls.
In the bathroom he watches her putting up her hair. Her arms are raised. In the hollows there is a shadow of growth, short and soft, and to this belongs a damp, oniony odor which he loves. When she is in the tub, he begins to scrub her back. She complains. It’s too hard.
He runs his fingertips lightly over the skin.
“It looks better,” he says.
She does not reply. She is bent forward slightly in the thin, comforting steam, her arms along the white rim. Beneath them, faintly commonplace, her breasts are visible, as if he might see them any time he liked, as if they were ordinary as knees. The palest nipples–he can barely see one. He kneels there beside the tub. She begins to wash her legs.
Simple moments of immodesty, an immodesty which finishes desire, one often hears, in a great and abiding city. I have visited and read a good deal about Nancy. The capital of Lorraine. A model of eighteenth-century planning. Its harmonious squares, its elegant houses are typically French and appropriate to so rich a region, but its glory it owes to a Pole, Stanislas Leszczynski, who was given the duchies of Lorraine and Bar by his son-in-law, Louis XV, and who ruled from Nancy which he devoted himself to embellishing. An ancient city. The old quarter has never been altered. A city of rich merchants, strategic, key to the lands along the border. In front of its very walls… But how flat this all seems, how hopeless, like a cheap backdrop shaking as the actors walk.
touching, they drive along the empty boulevard. Schools are closed. The iron gates are locked in front of those long, damp alleys smelling of pee. A watery sunshine, blenched by skies which refuse to warm, falls on the blocks and corners. Unexpectedly, like a band of survivors, there is a crowd, all decently dressed, just leaving church. They squint as they come out into the light. They leave the steps, walk along, stop at the baker’s for bread. From there they scatter, the warm loaves under their arms. Dean is a little bored. It’s an effort to speak French. He’s weary of it, and English is no better, hers is so uneven. Her mistakes begin to be irritating, and besides, she seems disposed to talk only of banal things: shoes, her work at the office. When she is silent, he glances at her and smiles. She doesn’t respond. She senses it, he thinks. Suddenly, he feels transparent. The eyes that return his somewhat mechanical glance are the eyes of a knowing child, and all the evasions, poses, devices become foolish. The windshield has faint streaks of blue like air. As he looks through, at the road ahead, he is conscious of her calm appraisal. She understands effortlessly. Life is all quite clear to her. She is one with it. She moves in it like a fish, never wondering if it has a bottom, shores, worlds above it…
Worlds below. Those provincial Sundays I walked along the streets on the way perhaps to lunch with the Jobs, encountering as I went, even inventing myself, those small epiphanies of which the town is comprised. The clink of spoons as they dine, unseen, behind the shutters of the girls’ school. The graveled courts, the gardens of Autun. I stood near the window as I dressed, steeped in aching thoughts and hoping for the appearance, even for a moment emerging from her door, of Claude Picquet. Icicles fall from the roof, broken free by sunlight, and flash past the window. She never comes out. The street remains still. As I look back, I see that life is like a game of solitaire and every once in a while there is a move. Despite it all, I could have been happy, a quiet happiness to be sure, but happy nonetheless. I could have found it very pleasant to walk into town if the weather were nice–things like that. It is knowledge that poisons us, events one would hesitate to imagine.
Winter days remarkable only for their calm… I go down to the Café Français and sit with my back to the mirrors watching them play cards. I have beautiful shots of this, many reflected in the glass. The camera was in my lap, sometimes behind a newspaper. The click of the shutter was softer than a match strike. The waitress pretending not to see. People come in the door, which is right on the corner. One wall is all windows on the square. The light is flooding but mild. The voices are low. I spread out the newspaper and begin to read. Occasionally I make some notes.
Of course, there’s Paris. I stand waiting on the
in the icy dark. The clock shines white as the moon. The early train is an adventure, rocking along as dawn comes, rushing through villages of the dead. I take a seat at the end of the car. All the compartments look stuffy, thick with the odors of sleep. It’s after nine when we pull into Nevers. There’s a clatter of doors. Bursts of cold air from outside. A handsome girl boards wearing a checkered coat. Her father is there to see her off, I watch him through the windows. He is waiting rather diffidently for the train to begin moving and then, as it does, he shows a last, hurried affection. She has the scars of some skin disease on her cheeks, otherwise an intelligent face. And she has good legs and hands. Her father looked quite distinguished.
After we are moving she comes out of her compartment and enters the
, just behind me. She passes very close in a red silk suit. She has a nice figure. A long time passes. I begin to be uneasy. I don’t know why. I begin to become aware of myself sitting innocently at the end of the passage. Silence, except for the train. Finally I hear paper tearing. The sound alarms me. We are passing dead engines. Farther down the car, two men are standing, one in the thick, blue uniform of the French Air Force. More paper tearing. They’re paying no attention to me, absolutely none, but suddenly I’m afraid. I have a moment of agonizing premonition. She’s going to do something terrible, burst out, wipe shit on my face, abuse me, screaming things I know I won’t be able to understand. I am about to stand up and move when there are explosions of air as we pass more engines. The sound is terrifying.
And then the great, blackened terminal in Paris, that filthy cathedral, stale and exhausted, through which one passes into grey, commercial streets. I walk outside to find a cab, falling wearily into the back seat although it’s only a little past noon. I am thinking of Cristina who later, as we drive to dinner, will begin to tell me about Isabel’s husband who comes to her now for advice. They’re very friendly. They drive around town talking while he offhandedly points to various buildings he owns.
“Fabulous apartment houses,” she says, shrugging up her shoulders in helplessness. She is in an expensive black dress from which her neck emerges quite bare.
“He didn’t own that one,” Billy says. “It was the little, tiny one next door.”
“The little one next door,” she agrees. “Yes. All right. But he’s shown me lots of others.”
“Well, I just wouldn’t believe everything he says.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Why not?”
“I just wouldn’t,” Billy says. “You know, I talk to a lot of people.”
“He’s marvelous,” she says to me. “Believe me. Crazy about art.”
She’s had a few drinks already, bad for her liver, of course. She knows it, she won’t be able to sleep. Then she’ll begin to get terrible attacks, especially because of the not sleeping. Billy says that’s right: she ought to rest more.
We go to Chez Noé, just along the river, where as soon as we appear, we are embraced with cries of joy. They haven’t been here for months–it’s the place they used to come to before they were married.
“When we were sleeping together,” Cristina says.
Billy glances at her.
A small restaurant, plain as an aunt’s house. Upstairs it’s relatively empty. They put us by the window. Cristina insists on champagne.
“I feel like it tonight.”
“Watch out, Bummy,” he says.
She gives a foolish laugh.
“All right,” he says. “Remember, I told you.”
“Yes, darling,” she says.
Outside I can see the black river, battered like foil, and the Wheatlands’ tan Mercedes abandoned under the streetlights, nosed in, not exactly parallel with the curb. Cristina’s a painter, or more exactly would have been a painter if it weren’t for her first marriage. She laid it all aside for that. With Billy it’s been different. She’s attending classes again, but…she sighs.
“No,” he assures her, “the paintings you’re doing now are the best you’ve ever done. You’ve even said that yourself.”
“I don’t know, they’ve gotten too intellectual,” she says. “All the life has suddenly gone out of them.”
“No, it hasn’t.”
“You’re not a painter,” she says. Then to me, “Lend me your handkerchief.”
For a moment I’m afraid she’s going to cry, but she merely blows her nose. She looks directly at me. Her smiles are always mysterious.
“Tell him who’s in your class, now,” Billy says.
Isabel. She arrives with her poodle and ties the leash to one leg of the easel. She’s very serious about her work, she won’t joke about it.
“Is she a good painter?” I ask.
“You don’t know how funny you are,” Cristina says. Her flesh is lambent against the black of her dress, and she seems full of those rebellious acts that come to her so naturally when she drinks. She has large, lovely eyes and pale lashes. “There’s no one in that whole class who can paint. Well, just one. Alix could be a good painter, but she won’t work. You have to be willing to give up everything.”
“I mean it,” she tells me. “Do you know Alix?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She’s divine,” Cristina says. “You’d like her.”
The owners sit down with us, Michelle first, approaching with a lovely smile. She’s not young, but rather in the midst of that last and most confident beauty, like the mother of a schoolmate. You see her emerging from a car, the flash of an elegant calf, and you are tumbled into unbearable love.
Michelle has a surprise: she and Charles have been married! Amid the congratulations and sincere embraces, Charles enters sheepishly, and this sets off another wave of salutes. They open more champagne and even bring out the reserve Calvados. Afterwards, they sing a little duet together. It’s quite touching. Through the many years she spent as his mistress, they were perfectly open about their relationship, but marriage causes them to blush and tell jokes. Michelle’s son, who is fifteen or so, comes upstairs with a friend. Everybody sits around and talks with the exception of the friend and me. We are strangers to the past that unites them. The friend smokes cigarettes, and I drink the Calvados.