by A.C. Koch
You wanted to know if I ever loved your mother, and whether she
was a whore. The answers are yes, and yes - but it's not like you think.
Nothing was ordinary where your mother was involved. It's not such a pretty
story, the way we met, but it deserves telling. And if it ever seems gratuitous
to you, like you can't read on, just remember that you were the final, burbling
result of all this twisted mess. Because we didn't meet cute, your mother
and I, like they do in Hollywood movies.
Listen: it was night, Paris, and one in the morning. Low clouds catching the light of the city. Someone was throwing a party for the independent filmmakers who had exhibited at a festival in the Pompidou Center, and your mother and I were among the honorees. She had made a film about an avenging whore with AIDS who ran around infecting every man she could get her hands on. It was made to look like a documentary, but it was all scripted. Still, a lot of people were scandalized. People naturally imagined her performance as something autobiographical. They whispered about her. I shouldered in next to her at the cocktail table. "You're the avenging whore," I said. That line would go over like a brick with anyone else, but it got a smile from her.
"I don't really have AIDS," she said.
"So it was all fake?"
"Of course not!" That pissed her off. "The story was real, the emotion was real, I just don't have AIDS is all. That doesn't make it fake. It's called acting."
She didn't have to tell me that. In my own short film I'd played a gay cowboy serial killer, and certainly none of that was true about me - it was all acting. But the important thing here is that your mother and I had just met. We simply had no idea where this was heading. Imagine that.
Her name, she told me, was Joëlle. An entrancing sound, when said aloud. There was a conversation. I can't pretend I remember any of the specifics. What I do remember is this: She had glossy black hair and eyebrows like crescent moons. Her eyelids were heavy, as if she were eternally tired, and her top lip and her bottom lip didn't quite fit together, so they were always parted in a sensual way. Maybe she still has that look about her - you would know better than I. Anyway, it was those lips that made the strongest impression on me. Those lips, I thought to myself, they don't fit together. As if some kind of challenge.
But the party sucked us away in different directions, and when I went looking for her later, she had already left. The room was filled with artsy freaks in bizarre outfits but no one looked interesting to me now that Joëlle, the AIDS girl, was gone. I felt like I already knew what everyone was going to say. We were all small-time filmmakers. Our common currency was the manipulation of sound and image for dramatic effect. The illusion had to be seamless or everything would fall apart.
I wandered around with a succession of drinks in my hand until Antoine showed up with some lanky redheaded woman. Antoine was the guy who had produced my film. The kind of guy who always got what he wanted. The woman with him had blue eyes and a glistening, lip-gloss smile. "Nicolette," Antoine said, "is looking for a part. Something juicy."
Nicolette offered her freckled cheeks for the standard three-peck greeting and that's when I recognized her from a scene in Joëlle's avenging whore movie. She had played a half-naked junkie who sucked-off anyone for fifty francs towards her next fix. There had been a scene of her lying topless in the back of a trashed-out Citroën. I resisted the temptation to wonder if she really was a junky whore. As for the topless part, there was no denying that: we'd already seen her half-naked. But I guess seeing is never quite believing, even for a filmmaker.
Confession: I had just split up with a woman I had been sure was the One. She was gone, for whatever reason. I won't say her name, not even now. My apartment had become dead silent, night and day, except for the sounds I made rustling in my bed and shuffling around, boiling water for coffee. The lonelieness was intense, like an aching bone. Like a hangover that won't go away. Like a morning erection that is only a throbbing, without a trace of desire.
Antoine and Nicolette announced they were catching a cab and I could share the fare across town. Crossing Paris, three in the morning over the dead boulevards. We were streaking through the very tunnel where the Princess crashed when Nicolette said this: "You should come back to my place. There's more wine, and we can mess around and get naked."
That may seem like an unambiguous statement, but she said it in English, which caused all kinds of problems in my brain. Unlike French, English doesn't distinguish between the singular 'you' and the plural 'you' so I had no idea if she was talking to me or to Antoine or to both of us. We were sitting on either side of her in the backseat and she was looking straight ahead at the shifting lanes. Antoine and I looked at each other - he was just as perplexed as I was. He spoke up. "Could you say that again, but in French?"
Nicolette smiled, looking straight ahead down the road. She said it again, quieter this time so the driver wouldn't hear. She said it in French and the ambiguities disappeared. The pronoun was vous - the plural form.
"Well," said Antoine.
"Hmmm," I said.
* * *
Nicolette's place. She put on some Bach cello suites and left me and Antoine to make our way through a bottle of Bordeaux. We passed it back and forth taking long slugs. For several minutes there was only the wine and the music. A throaty tone reverberated from the stereo, from the heart of the cello. I said, "I think I should probably leave," but Antoine tossed his chin at me.
"Why would you want to leave at a time like this?"
"I can't quite imagine where this is going."
"Then don't waste time imagining. Just wait a minute and see what happens."
Nicolette walked into the room in a bathrobe. Her hair was wet and steaming. Beads of water rolled down her throat and across her shining collar bones into the folds of her terrycloth. "This doesn't happen all the time," she said. "I mean, a couple of dolls like you."
It was the first time anyone had ever called me a doll. I liked the sound of it.
* * *
I watched them screw. She included me in the equation with her free hand, running over my chest. I flicked my tongue over one of her nipple as Antoine rolled on a condom. He steered her hips around and pushed himself into her. They both grunted. I watched their pelvises work and their faces contort and I kept thinking we should be filming this. A point comes when you think you should be filming everything, as if every moment that goes by is worthy of the kind of scrutiny that will reveal manifold truths. I held a condom in its silver vacuum-sealed package, but I didn't open it. Nicolette lay atop Antoine, kissing his neck. He had pulled out and they were no longer screwing but only flicking their tongues on one another. Then Nicolette turned her head and took me into her mouth and set her tongue to work. A deep warmth took root in my gut. The CD shuffled and repeated and the sound of the bow drawing over the strings filled the room. You could hear the wood of the cello humming and you could hear the chalkdust rising from the strings. And then all of us collectively moaning. I felt the moment, but didn't let myself come. I wanted to draw it out and save it. I thought of a bead of water clinging to the underside of Nicolette's chin when she'd walked into the room. That was me: balanced between two tensions. She wrapped her hand around Antoine and moved her fist in a blur. In a moment he let out an animal sound and lay back on the sheet, chest heaving, eyes shut. I pulled away from her and climbed out of the bed. Out the windows lay a five-point intersection where only a handful of cars passed through the streetlights. My naked and glistening reflection shimmered in the glass. Nicolette lay squirming, going down on Antoine again. He was responseless, lying there as if dead. "This is just the beginning," she said.
* * *
I suppose it sounds strange to say that I was lonely. It came over me standing at the window. My skin grew cold and I wanted to lie there on the bed with a warm body wrapped up in mine, and drift off to sleep - but that wasn't going to happen tonight. My girl was gone, remember.
In fact, Antoine and Nicolette were wrapped up like that, and it was clear to me that this was their show, not mine. I thought about whether I should go back to the bed and screw her and get it out of my system but the two of them looked like lovers lying there. Their arms and legs were intertwined, and if not for her freckles it would've been hard to say whose skin was whose, how pale they both were. Antoine raised his head and looked at me. "Hey, where's the AIDS girl? She should be here for this."
I shrugged. Nicolette laughed and said something I didn't catch. I picked up the Bordeaux and took a swig. Out the window on the horizon it was hard to say whether the sunrise was beginning to glow or if it was just the citylight blazing on the low clouds. I pulled on my clothes, did up my boots, stood in the doorway. "You two have fun, " I said. "I'm going to go find a park bench somewhere."
They watched me but said nothing. I searched for the wine cabinet and ended up in the kitchen staring at a note clipped to a magnet on the fridge. 'Joëlle,' was the word written at the top, followed by a number and an address. I took the note, and the magnet with it, and stuffed the whole fistful in my pocket. On the windowsill stood an unopened Cote du Rhone. Things were working out alright. I went out the door with the bottle in my fist. Night, Paris, four in the morning.
* * *
The boulevard was deserted on the cusp of late night/early morning. A chill was in the air, autumn dissolving into winter. I walked to the sound of my boots on the pavement. I felt exactly the same as if I had just spent a lonely night wandering the city drinking and looking to get laid. There was none of the elation of sex, no warmth of romance, only a sticky soreness in the crotch and booze swimming in my blood. I wondered if there might be any whores around, someone I could come over and be done with it. That's what this kind of night does to you. Left with nothing and wanting anything. I never said this story of yours would be pretty.
Joëlle. I felt the paper in my pocket, the magnet that stuck to my keys. Her address was way out of the city along a commuter trainline in some suburb. I couldn't imagine why a person like her would live in the suburbs. It added, I suppose, to her mystique.
* * *
The train out of the city was occupied by a handful of men in business suits with ashen, sleepy faces. There were some wasted-looking partiers and a couple of shifty punks in parkas with stocking caps pulled down over their eyebrows. I sat on a bench and leaned my head on the window as the landscape slide by. We passed highrise complexes covered in graffiti, vacant lots strewn with trash, highways crossed by semis and buses. Through smokestacks and trees there was a glimpse of Versailles, then more highrises, more vacant lots. I got off at a station that was no more than a platform between two sets of tracks. I walked through a plaza of geometric planters and vacant benches ringed by highrises. A group of kids smoking under a streetlight whistled menacingly as I went by, but otherwise there was no sign of life. I spent a half hour circling through the complex looking for her building, one of a dozen identical residential towers. Up a dark staircase scrawled in graffiti, I found a metal door and stood before it.
Having arrived here, I couldn't quite remember why I'd come. The bottle was still in my hand, Nicolette's Cote du Rhone. With a couple swigs, it was finished and I set it in the corner with the clink of glass on concrete. Sulfites gritted in my teeth. It seemed now that without coffee, I would simply collapse here in this stairwell and be cut to ribbons by some roving gang of hoodlums, and only for this reason did I ring the buzzer.
On the forth buzz the door began clicking and chinking as locks and deadbolts were undone. Whoever was on the other side had spied me through the peephole and so knew what awaited them. The door parted a crack and Joëlle peered out. She was groggy, eyes slitted at the dim light.
"Remember me?" I said.
"Are you insane?" she whispered.
"Just coming by for a visit."
There was a hesitating moment, and then the door swung open.
* * *
"Do you have any idea what time it is," she said as she poured me coffee. We sat at a table in a kitchen that was really only a tiled corner of the living-room. Dishes were piled high between us, half-eaten spaghetti, stained wine glasses. A lightbulb burned over our heads. Out the window at the sink, the sky was lightening over a murky landscape of smokestacks and highrises.
"I have no idea, actually," I said. "I didn't think someone like you would care."
"Someone like me? What the hell does that mean?" She stared at me. Her hair was tangled around her shoulders and there were dark circles under her eyes. There was a wrinkle spiked into her forehead over the nose that probably meant she was angry. In fact, she looked more beautiful than she had at the party the night before, because she wasn't flirting, she wasn't babbling on, she was just sitting there watching me. She lit a cigarette, drew long, and sighed as she exhaled.
"It's a little early for a cigarette, isn't it?"
"It's a little early for a lot of things," she said. "But people like me don't give a fuck, do we."
I smiled and sipped the coffee. "You wouldn't believe the night I had."
"I was there, remember?"
"I mean later. I watched Antoine and Nicolette having sex for hours."
"Nicolette? My junky whore? Did you film them?"
"I thought about it, but the camera wasn't around. That's what made me think of you, actually."
"What - the sex part, or the filming part?"
She looked at me through the rising curls of smoke. "Well," she said, "there's never going to be any sex between you and me." She punctuated this with a flick of ash onto a dirty plate. And she was right about that, one hundred percent. "But you might talk me into filming something."
I sipped the coffee. Bitter and weak. "Filming what?"
"Well, I suppose you're horny. That's why you came out here, isn't it? - because you, like everyone else, think I'm an easy lay because you saw me play a whore in a movie. You're thinking I'll take care of the hard-on you've been sporting all night. So - if that's what you really want, then you can drop your pants right here and jerk off, and I'll film it and add it to the archives. How's that sound?"
I watched her. She was looking right at me, humorless. The angry little wrinkle was still there on her forehead. I couldn't think of anything to say.
"My girlfriend," she went on, "is asleep in the bedroom. She won't like it much if she finds you masturbating in her kitchen, so you better make it quick." She got up and crossed the living-room to where a sofa faced a large television. A video camera stood on a tripod in the corner, connected to the tv by a cord. After a few minutes of rooting through the tapes, she found the one she wanted and loaded it into the camera, rewinding with a whirr. The tv bloomed to life in the stark lighting of home video. It was a man's hand pumping rapidly on a turgid penis. There was a convulsion, and then a spew. Then a cut to another groinshot - another hand, another penis. "I have a lot of these," she said. "I'm editing them into a montage." After the next cumshot there was a close-up of a woman's vagina, a hand pressing down on it, fingering the folds. Skin glistened, tendons tightened, the whole thing shuddered.
"That's me," she said, thumbing at the screen. Then another vagina, another hand.
She let the video play on silently and came back to the table. My coffee went cold as I watched. It went on and on, groins of all persuasions. "It's strictly concept," Joëlle said. "It's not for porno mags, or the internet, or anything like that. The montage is going to be used for a modern dance performance, projected on the dancefloor. My girlfriend's a choreographer."
"Amazing," I said.
She smiled. The tv screen turned to silent static. "So, want to do it?"
I shook my head.
"More coffee then?"
I shook my head again, though I don't know why. Because I did want more coffee, and I did want to masturbate. I thought of Antoine convulsing, Nicolette's fist wrapped around him, the glistening fluid in the dark. "Actually," I said, "is there any more coffee?"
Joëlle shook her head. She pulled the coffeepot off the burner, empty and stained with burnt grime on the bottom. Then she crossed the room and stopped the tape, turned off the tv. "So why did you come out here? Was it for sex? or coffee?"
"I was lonely."
"You weren't horny?"
"You know, not everything has to be about sex. I was there with Nicolette and Antoine, I told you. And I had the chance to screw her, but I didn't. I don't want it like that, you know? You people all make it seem like some freaky circus, some orgy or some perverted video. Why can't it just be two people curled up and being with each other?"
Joëlle watched me. "Well, it is like that. With my girlfriend, because I love her. There's a difference between love and fucking. Or hadn't anyone told you?"
"That's just what I'm talking about. I wanted someone to curl up with, that's it. Just to curl up. And I thought you might be into that. Not love, not fucking, not jerking off on a video camera, just curling up." I was thinking about the other one, you see. The one who was gone. The one whose name I still can't say out loud.
She nodded. "Well, curling up is fine, but like I said, my girlfriend is in the other room, and I think for her it'd be worse to find me cuddled up on the couch with some guy than to find me filming him jerking off."
"She understands me. She knows what I'm doing isn't porno, and it isn't some freaky circus, as you say. And some day, one of us is going to get knocked up with a turkey baster, and we're both going to be mothers to a beautiful child. You could even say that these videos are like auditions for that day. But that day isn't today."
"I think I should be going."
She didn't say anything, just smiled. That angry wrinkle was gone from her forehead now. She took my empty coffee cup and set it in the sink.
* * *
I found my way back to the train station and stood on the platform with my hands shoved deep in my pockets. The morning was grey and cold, and for a moment I thought I could see tiny flakes of snow coming down like static. I watched the air, the texture of it, swirling around me, and I actually put a hand out to see if I could catch a snowflake - but then I understood that it wasn't really snowing after all, it was just my own vision buzzing inside my head, the feedback of sleeplessness.
Maybe I've made her out to be too perfect, too confident, your mother. Maybe she was more hesitant, or she stumbled over her words. But that morning in her dawning apartment, she was a flawless woman, exactly the opposite of the kind of man I was. This, I think now, was the reverb of my loneliness. Later, she would become more human to me. That would be a pity. I liked the reverb better.
The train arrived in a whistling shriek of steel on steel. All sensation was heightened by the onset of morning. My head was throbbing, my skin quivering in the cold, ears ringing. I took a seat in a train car occupied by a handful of generic commuters. We rode through the grey suburb keeping pace with cars along the highway. Believe me when I say that there was no way to get a handle on anything. Antoine was curled up with Nicolette, Joëlle was curled up with her girlfriend, and my ex-girlfriend was curled up with someone somewhere - and I was rattling along in a commuter train at daybreak with sore balls and an aching head.
In fact, it was becoming clear that I was suffering an acute case of blueballs. All that stimulation, real and imagined, had tied me in knots and I was worse off than before all of this had begun. I realized that I should have just jerked off for Joëlle's camera if only to relieve the pressure. Now I couldn't sit comfortably - I had to lean to one side and take deep breaths through my teeth as the pain became a throbbing bell in the lower gut.
Tears sprang to my eyes and I hacked out a series of coughs. For a moment I marveled that I was actually in tears over my blue balls, and then very quickly it started to feel like I was dying. My throat burned and my vision went blurry and I doubled over coughing. Then I realized that everyone else on the train was doing the same thing, everyone in fits of coughs and streaking tears. The train screeched to a halt and the doors slid open and everyone jumped out onto the side of the tracks. A voice crackled over the intercom that someone had set off a teargas bomb in the rear car and that all passengers should move to the front of the train. I saw through the window a couple kids in parkas and stocking caps running across a vacant lot. A chemical cloud wafted down the tracks.
I hesitated. I was now alone in the train car with the fumes slowly dissipating. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Still, I didn't move. At last the doors slid shut with a click, and the train lurched into motion. I undid my pants and took my cock out. It wasn't easy to get it up, but I managed a half-staff. There on the seat I stroked myself, tenderly at first, then viciously, as the cityscape slid by in the naked morning. Later, I did the same thing for Joëlle, your mother, coming into a plastic bag so she could impregnate herself with a turkey baster, all of it on video. This was where you began, your prelude to life on earth. Wracked by coughs and running with tears, I came on the metal floor and collapsed back on the seat as something inside me broke and washed away, and its going made the day livable. I simply had no idea, you see, where all of this was headed. Imagine that.
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