Authors: James Salter
Tags: #Romance, #Classics
When we leave, there’s an argument, the second of the night. The first was when Cristina wouldn’t go down to the garage with him to get the car. Now he wants to go dancing.
“Oh, God,” she says.
“God, what?” He always becomes sullen.
“Nobody goes dancing,” she says.
Instead we go to a
. Billy is angry and bored the whole time. There’s a negress who sings in beautiful French, her sequin dress glittering with the brilliance of crystal scales. She is like a naiad in a skin of silver. Her teeth are hypnotic. Her smile crushes one’s hope. Billy is watching her impassively. Cristina leans on my shoulder and reveals I’m the only friend of his, the only one, she likes.
“You ought to be a painter,” she tells me, “you know?”
“You think so?”
“Yes. I mean, we’re doing the same thing, aren’t we? You and I.”
“Not exactly. I don’t change anything.”
“Of course you do!” she says fiercely.
“No, I don’t think so. Anyway, it doesn’t matter that much, I couldn’t be a painter.
ought to be a painter.”
She smiles strangely. I am afraid to explain.
“You’re so right,” she finally says. She notices Billy. “Baby,” she says, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he replies coldly.
“Let’s go dancing,” she says.
We drive along Boulevard Raspail. There’s a club somewhere, hidden among the ordinary storefronts. They can’t agree where it is until suddenly we are going past it. Billy stops with a jerk. He backs into a parking place with ferocious skill. Cristina gets out and takes my arm. This is a place the Greek shipping millionaires come to, she tells me. The band never stops.
Cristina refuses to dance, of course. We watch the others instead, a sleek Japanese girl who’s been sitting at the bar and a man of sixty, fat as a pastry cook. They part in rhythm and face the side. Then they dance back to back. He’s absurd, but very graceful. His feet are nimble as mice. Finally they begin playing something Cristina likes. We dance with her in turn.
“Onassis sits at that table over there,” she tells me out on the floor.
“In the corner.”
“Oh.” I stare at it. “What does he look like?”
“You’ve seen pictures of him, haven’t you?” she says.
“Yes, but I mean close up…”
“He looks very rich,” she says.
“Does he wear those tinted glasses?”
“You mean sunglasses? All of them do. You never know what they’re thinking.”
“About you, I imagine.”
“Me?” she says.
“I’m sure he has an appreciative eye.”
“I’d like to catch it sometime.”
“Would you really marry a rich man?”
“Next time,” she says. “Oh, it wouldn’t last, but he’d be very happy.”
“Oh, yes,” she promises.
She has her moments. Still, it’s dangerous to believe in what she seems to be. One often has the impression there is another, desperate woman underneath, but this is the extent of her power, this intimation of sexual wealth. Billy always talks about how beautiful she is. It’s almost as if he’s protesting: but she
beautiful. And she is. Their life is arranged to exhibit this beauty. They treat it like the possession of a fine house.
A tall, enraptured dancer, dark as a gypsy, comes onto the floor. He’s in a business suit. His hair is long, and his shoes have high, leather heels. There’s the glitter of madness about him as he dances alone, the friends at his table watching with smiles. The Japanese girl can see him. The fat man can hear his feet. The music continually quickens. A regular contest has begun. It’s like the start of a crime of passion, they are already winding the shroud around the poor, fat bourgeois, hot glances meeting as they writhe on either side. But he will not die. He dances like a man possessed, his face flushed and shining with sweat, his mouth in a dead man’s smile. Now it drops open. Everything in the club has stopped. Everybody is watching. Any second I expect to see him crumple like an old coat. The music alone can kill him. They are dancing in a frenzy. The musicians have gone wild.
On the way home we get lost. Even though they’ve lived in the city for five years, Billy doesn’t know where we are. There’s no one to ask. We slow down at the corners to try and read the plaques and then, tires scorching, take off. The streets are empty except for an occasional car. Even the big intersections. We race around for an hour. Cristina’s head lies limply on my shoulder. She’s sleeping. After a while–we are going by certain stores for the third time–she begins to sing. Her eyes are still closed. Slurred, faintly poetic phrases come from her mouth. Billy glances at her. He seems like the doctor driving us to a hospital. Finally, just as we come into a part of town he recognizes, she struggles up. I feel a sudden disappointment, as if she’s abandoned me, but then in return, with a sure instinct she shows me the truest of smiles. We are passing various galleries. She watches them go by.
“There,” she points out. “That’s where I’m going to have a showing some day. Right in that gallery.”
We’re looking through the rear window now.
“The best gallery in Paris.”
Billy ignores her. She begins to arrange her hair, turning the rearview mirror so she can see herself. He says nothing. She begins to stroke his collar. The sky has lost its blackness. It’s too late to sleep.
My bed is in a room which also serves as the study. It’s just off the stairway. One has to pass through it to get to theirs. Enormous drapes, almost too heavy to swell, are drawn across the windows, but already it seems the bottoms are edged by a faint light. Sunday morning. I close my eyes and wait. Perhaps we’ll have breakfast at one o’clock or so. Afterwards we may do something amusing.
HEY ARE WAITING ON
the street in the late afternoon. The air is thin as paper. The day is raw. Anne-Marie’s girl friend is supposed to come. Of course, he’s curious even though he pretends he’s not. He wants to see what she’s like. He glances around, trying to pick her out from afar. Finally she appears, in a coat with a little fur collar, complaining about the cold. A grocer’s daughter from St. Léger. Her name is Danielle.
In the café Dean sits idly while they talk in French. Danielle seems older, more assured. She has long hair which she wears loose and keeps stroking smoothly as she talks. He glances through her notebook. It’s school work. The pages are graph paper. Pale blue rulings, neat equations, proofs. After a while he is aware she is watching. He closes the book.
They say goodbye at the door, she has to catch the train.
A toute à lheure
,” Dean says.
“No,” she corrects him abruptly. “You don’t see me later, not today. It’s
,” he says.
Afterwards, Anne-Marie asks if he liked her. Dean doesn’t answer.
“She has nice hair,” he says.
“Her mother doesn’t let her cut it.”
They sit in silence. He is still annoyed. And it’s disturbing to suddenly find she has another life, someone else she wants to see. He orders a glass of wine. He asks if she would like one. She seems very quiet.
“No,” she says, “
They have a light dinner down near the station. The waiter there knows them. Not many people come in on winter evenings, and they sit alone in the long, reflecting room and talk in low voices. A solitary car turns past the square. Without daring to look at him, she touches his idle hand. Then slowly, taking heart, she begins to stroke his fingers one by one.
In the room she begs him to undress her. He does it lifelessly. It’s very cold. She hurries into bed.
“Do you want me to slip in beside you for a while?” he says at last.
“You don’t have to ask me that.”
Quickly he pulls off his clothes, his flesh tightening as the chilly sheets enclose it. They both lie still, waiting for the warmth of their bodies to permit them to touch. There is the whisper of her arm as she reaches up.
“I love your hair,” she says.
Dean is silent.
“Do you like it?”
“Oh…” he says.
“It’s very soft. It’s like seal,” she says.
,” she murmurs. She surrenders to the name. “
These whispered words overcome him. He turns his head to face her in the dark. Their mouths meet. Her breath is thin and rotten. It makes him dizzy. It makes him long for air. There is light from the crack under the door, a light which slowly reveals the room. He can make out her clear, her saintly face now, pale as a letter. Through the wall come the weak voices of people next door. Otherwise the silence is complete. They can no longer hear the heater or the clock, the sound of an occasional truck. They have proceeded into themselves. Her hand touches his chest and begins to fall in excruciating, slow designs. He lies still as a dog beneath it, still as an idiot.
She was seduced at seventeen by an Italian waiter in Contrexéville. It was her first summer away from home. She knew no one. She was not going to resist. Every night she went to dance, with another girl or alone, and she met him there in the conversation and cheap scents of the pavilion. She liked him, but the summer ended. He was gone. Of course, in Orléans she was quickly discovered, and there was Roland in Troyes, and his friends, boys in St. Léger, Citroens parked in the dense woods, young Tunisians working as salesmen. Dean knows he’s not the first. But he has no inclination to wonder, at least not about that, for neither is he entirely what he seems. Intelligent, yes, but somehow he is weary of his gifts. Already he seems to be outliving them. He sometimes thinks otherwise, but he’s finished with school. The clever mathematician is disappearing, the young man for whom everything was too easy. His existence is already becoming clouded, strange. He is like a son who has been cut off and now is discarding the customs, the course of ordinary life without hesitation, with all the assurance of an anarchist.
His mother is dead. She was a suicide. Her marriage was terrifying to her. In the center of it she found herself completely alone. During the last year she sent long telegrams to her sister, sometimes quoting poetry, Swinburne, Blake. One day she burned her diaries, a spring day, and walked into the Connecticut River to drown, just like Virginia Woolf or Madame Magritte. She was buried in Boston, her home. I could see the ceremony. Dean is six years old and his sister three. They stand stunned and obedient as the great, glistening coffin is lowered into the ground. Within lies the drowned woman who had given them life and who now gives an example of melancholy and commitment which will stay with them forever. Clods of earth thunder onto the hollow lid and, half-orphan, bearer of his mother’s death which is not yet even real, he begins his life. Much of it you know, at any rate college, the wanderings.
Now, at twenty-four, he has come to the time of choice. I know quite well how all that is. And then, I read his letters. His father writes to him in the most beautiful, educated hand, the born hand of a copyist. Admonitions to confront life, to think a little more seriously about this or that. I could have laughed. Words that meant nothing to him. He has already set out on a dazzling voyage which is more like an illness, becoming ever more distant, more legendary. His life will be filled with those daring impulses which cause him to disappear and next be heard of in Dublin, in Veracruz… I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.
After a while, the second phase begins: the time of few choices. Uncertainties, strange fears of the past. Finally, of course, comes the third phase, the closing, and one must begin shutting out the world as if by panels because the strength to consider everything in all its shattering diversity is gone and the shape of life–but he will be in a poet’s grave by then–finally appears, like a drop about to fall.
Dean doesn’t quite understand this yet. It doesn’t mean anything in particular to him. He is, after all, not discontented. Her breasts are hard. Her cunt is sopping. He fucks her gracefully, impelled by pure joy. He arches up to see her and to look at his prick plunging in, his balls tight beneath it. Mythology has accepted him, images he cannot really believe in, images brief as dreams. The sweat rolls down his arms. He tumbles into the damp leaves of love, he rises clean as air. There is nothing about her he does not adore. When they are finished, she lies quiet and limp, exhausted by it all. She has become entirely his, and they lie like drunkards, their bare limbs crossed. In the cold distance the bells begin, filling the darkness, clear as psalms.
ATURDAY, THE SIXTH OF
January. The sky is cloudless, blue, cold as ice and yet burning the eyes. The sun is just weak enough to be felt through the windshield, no more. It’s the coldest day of the year. He takes a curve on the wrong side near Beaune and then, too late, sees the figure near the edge of the trees, a figure in uniform who casually waves him down, now it is two of them:
. Dean has crossed the solid line in the middle of the road. It’s quite serious. In France the
don’t fool around. One doesn’t misbehave. Slowly they walk across to the car. They have the faces of hunters, unemotional and wise. They ask for his papers. His French vanishes. It crumbles to a few, inept words. He stammers and can answer only with difficulty. The policemen are patient. They seem to be watching his mouth, as if they might understand him despite himself. Not more than a glance on their part at Anne-Marie who sits still as a housemaid while Dean struggles and lies. It seems the ordeal will never end. Finally they deliver a warning, with gestures, and allow him to go on. Dean thanks them.
He knows he’s been a fool. It’s made even more clear by her silence, by something in her face. He behaved like a frightened boy. Worse, he couldn’t even find words.