Read My Hundred Lovers Online

Authors: Susan Johnson

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My Hundred Lovers (10 page)

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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serve as the foundation of the body, as the engine of propulsion, the means by which we traverse the pathless lines of the world.

Mountaineers believe that some climbers have an artist's eye for the most beautiful routes up difficult peaks. Such climbers instinctively understand the aesthetic appeal of a particular route up a mountain, allowing their feet to follow their eyes, trusting them to find the most beautiful way forward.

Achilles died from a wound to the heel, the only vulnerable spot on his body, a spot made by his mother's fingers as she first dangled him into the Styx, the river of the underworld, and then held him over the fire that burnt away his mortality.

Like my hands, my feet are small, often sweaty, the confessors of my body's discomfort. High-arched, blunt of toe, as wide as paddles, they have walked Corsican beaches, the streets of Copenhagen, impressing themselves upon the grass outside the back door of a flat in Old South Head Road, Sydney. They have danced in stockinged feet or barefoot, they have danced in high-heeled shoes, in Doc Martens and in satin slippers, performing acrobatic feats of uncertain grace, revolving around and around dance floors and living rooms and kitchens, scarcely seeming to touch the turning earth.

Once I saw a foot-washing ceremony in a small stone church on the Greek island of Kythera. It was Maundy Thursday, the sky a peerless blue, and an old priest was carefully washing a parishioner's feet, one at a time. In some cities of America there are churches that make it their business to give the city's poorest a hot, nourishing meal, but only after volunteers have washed their dirty feet.

I also washed my new husband's feet. I wished to show gratitude, to render transparent my lover's boundless heart.

One morning, not long before my fiftieth year approached, I felt a sharp pain in my right foot and looked down. Sprouting from the soft fleshy part at the inner side of my foot, immediately below the big toe, a bunion had appeared. Overnight, my foot suddenly looked as my father's had when he was an old man, misshapen, buckled, ready to walk towards the last of its numbered days.

Kiss me, Steph

tells. What a repository of kisses and sighs!

The tiny crooked scar on the elastic bridge of flesh between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, from an accidental slip of Steph's Swiss Army knife that silver day when we shucked oysters on the beach. Steph, who remained long after Nina Payne and her pale, easily bruised skin were forgotten.

Steph and I driving off in Claudette on a whim one silver morning instead of going to lectures, Steph lying on the back seat, singing her heart out, the tips of her brown toes sticking out the window.

Steph, who walked on the very tips of her brown toes. Even from a great distance her gait was immediately recognisable, a light, springy step, as if she were skipping. Steph brought her guitar that bright flowering day and cracked us up doing Tiny Tim impersonations. She made friends with a fisherman, a surfer, a wet dog. She made friends with everyone because Steph was made for friendship. She was always helping girls leave their boyfriends, or supporting them if they did not, or else watering the plants and feeding the animals and doing the banking or the shopping for the many friends who knew they could count on her. Once she took around meals to our staunch friend Ro's ailing mother; Ro did not want to go herself, because her mother was a battleaxe. The first thing the battleaxe said to Steph as she laid out the dinner was that she did not care for macaroni. Then she asked if Steph could work out a menu in advance for her approval. ‘And I always eat at seven. On the dot.' The battleaxe had a patrician English accent.

Steph, who I once tried to kiss. It was the heady days of women's liberation and being a radical lesbian was a political statement; that is, feminism was the theory and lesbianism was the practice. Steph, who in my arms was surprisingly tiny, Steph at a gay bar with me, which was full of lesbian separatists.

As soon as I kissed Steph, she started to giggle. And then I started to giggle too, because kissing her felt all wrong, like attempting to tongue-kiss Miss Meow.

Justine Gervais

kiss the lips of Justine Gervais!

I remember the fullness of Justine Gervais's bottom lip, the plump curve at the centre, the bow of her upper lip, and the exact way the upper and lower lips crumpled into a smile.

Her head was always slightly dipped, as if she were shy and forever looking up through her lashes. But that can't be right, that can't be true, for Justine Gervais was a leader of women, the first who told me that it was a political act to sleep with a woman. Justine Gervais had something to sell, a polemic, a dream, a bright inflamed future, a whole new way of being a woman.

So Justine Gervais could not have looked up at me through pretty lashed eyes, like a coquette. She probably looked up with a quizzical expression, a challenge no less, with her usual clever, appraising way of addressing the world. She had a naturally furrowed brow, hooded dark eyes, a fierce look, as if she was born ready to burn at the stake.

Justine Gervais, in her Levi's 501s and her T-shirt bearing the words
Dare to struggle, dare to win!
, her upper body bending across a table to make a point. She had olive skin, the finest composition of bones, a natural elegance. I watched her at university gatherings speaking out in favour of abortion rights or the right to march or solidarity with the Chilean people against Pinochet. Once she wore a second-hand ivory-coloured chiffon blouse. The sun was shining through the window behind her at such an angle that it made her blouse see-through, revealing the outline of a single perfect breast. I saw the tip of a nipple, aroused, erect, because it was the passionate discourse of politics that sexually moved her.

Justine Gervais had a girlfriend, a plain, pug-nosed lesbian who had never known a man. Justine Gervais had known lots of men, leaving a trail of broken-hearted lovers all over the city, university lecturers and fellow students, student leaders, Communist Party officials and trade unionists. They loved her for her perfect breasts, for her pure, political heart.
No socialist liberation without women's liberation!
she shouted in the street, and,
What do we want? Free and safe abortion!
When do we want it? Now!
And everyone who heard her, men and women, sighed with longing.

I watched her dancing with her girlfriend at the gay bar filled with lesbian separatists. I was drunk, consumed with yearning, as if I had never known what desire was. I watched her swaying, rolling, twisting, her elegant limbs moving in a way which revealed how they might move in the act of love. Justine Gervais arched her long French–Australian neck and I glimpsed how she might look as the brief joyous throb arrived, that mysterious, timeless moment with no past or future, upon which marriages, careers, religions and kingdoms have risen and fallen.

Weeks later, in the kitchen at a party, she kissed me. ‘You're gorgeous,' she said, falling towards me. Her mouth was soft, ridiculously so, as if there was nothing to it, as if her lips were nothing but vapour.

I was twenty years old, still in thrall to the shadow lover, and I had not touched another female body since Nina Payne's.

I did not know what to do with the weight of Justine Gervais in my arms. She felt dangerous, like live electricity, like an unexploded bomb. I did not want her, not really, not then, not like that. I wanted her in my head, as a dream, as an idea, not as a flesh-and-blood woman.

‘Do you want to come back to my place?' she asked and I blushed.

‘What about your girlfriend?' I said.

She laughed. ‘Mandy's cool,' she said. ‘She's staying at Lou's.'

I disengaged my body.

I took a step backwards.

‘Ah, listen . . .' I said.

‘Look,' I said. ‘This is . . . well, it's just that I've got a boyfriend.'

Justine Gervais smiled. ‘I know.' But she must have seen something else, because she stepped forward and took my hand in hers, raising it to her blazing, tied-to-the-stake face.

‘When you're ready,' she said. ‘I'll wait.'

Justine Gervais, are you waiting still?

Are you waiting with your crumpled lips in Sydney or London or Rome?

Most likely you forgot about waiting.

But my remembering arms have never forgotten the delicious shock of holding you.

A bridge

the young woman flew away. It was a long day, because the young woman did not stop flying until she reached the other side of the world.

She was flying from the turban, from the magic carpet and the beautiful sister, from the lover who was a shadow. She could feel the clutch of fingers desperate to catch the heel of her foot as she took off.

She fetched up in London, at the big old house of staunch Ro's favourite aunt, Sheila, in Ealing. Amazingly, Sheila was the sister of the battleaxe, who had abandoned England with her young family many years before. Sheila was nothing like the battleaxe or indeed anything like Ro, who was a great hulk of a woman, large-bummed, rolling. Sheila was tall and skinny with a long, intelligent face like Leonard Woolf, with prominent teeth, and was a leading scholar of English place names. It was her passionate belief that names drawn from the landscape were not trivial or accidental, but navigational and critical. She told the girl that Anglo-Saxons once had more than forty words to describe hills, from the slant of their slopes to the particular trees that grew upon them, almost as many words as the Inuit had for snow.

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
11.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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