Read My Hundred Lovers Online

Authors: Susan Johnson

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My Hundred Lovers (21 page)

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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‘Horatia!'

She tapped the side of her nose. ‘I don't mind telling her if you won't.'

Ro was just as enamoured of Horatia as I was, and especially admired her take-no-prisoners pronouncements. ‘I've never met a woman with so much gall,' she said.

‘Do you think it's because she's a lesbian?' I asked. ‘You know, she hasn't spent her life pussy-footing around men like we have.'

‘Pussy-footing. Interesting choice of words.'

Horatia was ceaseless in her quest to persuade us to move to Paris permanently.

‘I could never live here full-time,' Ro said. ‘Paris is like a film set. It's not real to me.'

Horatia smiled. ‘That's simply because you haven't lived here long enough. In time you'd see that it is just like anywhere else, except for the French genius of appreciating what is best in life.'

‘Hmm,' said Ro. ‘Tell that to the poor souls crammed into public housing. Or to the Algerian kids who can't get into French universities.'

‘They all still flock to France, don't they?'

‘Only because they mistakenly think they are coming to a better life,' said Ro.

‘They are,' said Horatia.

‘I hate how smug the French are. And you're not even French, Horatia! You must know that it was the French genius for appreciating what is best in life that caused them to surrender to the Germans. They didn't want Paris to get bombed.'

Horatia smiled again. ‘That's a good enough reason to surrender, isn't it? For beauty's sake?'

I met the beautiful lover at the opening of an exhibition of sculptures by an old friend of Horatia's, a handsome Frenchwoman. I noticed him at once, and not only because he was one of the few men in the room.

I saw immediately that he was beautiful, breathtakingly so, and that his beauty stranded him in a lonely place. It had cleared a circle around him, a space no-one dared enter. He had a glass in his hand and everyone who passed glanced at him, covertly or overtly, not once but twice, three times, hardly believing what they were seeing.

He was obviously a model. In Paris I had sometimes come across others of these beautiful human specimens, who did not appear to have the same proportions as ordinary mortals. I once followed an exquisitely proportioned girl out of the metro and onto the street because I could not believe my eyes. She was flawless.

The beautiful man had finely cut bones and a full sensuous mouth that bore a curious resemblance to my father's.

‘Don't,' said Ro.

‘Too late,' I said as I walked towards him. ‘Hello,' I said.

‘How are you?' he said, turning and giving me a smile that almost knocked me off my feet.

The beautiful man turned out to be a painter, English, not yet represented by a decent gallery. Straight away he told me that his work had won no major prizes and consequently it had attracted little critical attention. He said he sold his work here and there, in Paris and in London, but that he mainly made his living as a model—a photographic model, not an artist's model. He also did catwalk shows.

‘I knew it!' I cried.

‘Everybody seems to guess,' he replied, a little mournfully.

I realised that I had seen his photographs in fashion magazines. He told me that he also featured in a large billboard ad for razors, which I remembered passing every time I caught the bus to Nana Elsie's. In the billboard photo he looked like a man who had never known misfortune and would never meet illness or decay. He looked like someone who would never experience death personally.

His name was Richard. He said it was kind of me to talk to him.

We swapped phone numbers. I said goodbye, in a reserved sort of way. Already I wanted to distinguish myself from all the other women who had drowned him in wishes.

I intended to wait for him to call and vowed not to call him first.

When Richard suggested meeting at a bar in the Marais, I was careful to keep a formal, respectful distance. I was keeping my dying romantic wishes well concealed beneath my longing skin.

When he suggested a drink at his flat after dinner, I said no.

‘Are you saving yourself?' he asked, giving me his beautiful smile.

‘Yes,' I said.

Ro and Horatia both advised caution.

‘The beautiful are a race apart,' said Horatia.

‘I know,' I said.

‘Beauty has its own rules,' Horatia added, just in case.

Richard lived in an apartment in the Marais, in a little Jewish quarter off the rue de Rivoli.

‘Bloody tourists,' he said, leading me through a throng of people to his flat for the first time.

When he walked down the street, women nudged each other and people sometimes stopped walking altogether to stare. Like a beautiful woman, his beauty defined him, and he was condemned to a life of either justifying it, or else pretending that it did not exist. He chose the latter.

His apartment doubled as a studio. His bed was a mattress on the floor, and every surface, every wall was covered with his paintings and drawings and with photographs he had cut out from magazines, from postcards, from newspapers. The effect was beautiful, a wild disarray of colour and line and form, and I spent the first hour gazing at the walls. His paintings were extraordinary.

‘Even I can tell that these are very, very good,' I said.

‘Thank you,' he said. ‘It's nerve-racking betting everything you've got on your own talent. There's always a good chance you won't be any good.'

I wished I could bet everything I had on something worthwhile. Should I bet on him? Was he the perfect lover, here at last?

The beautiful lover did not talk much and seemed to find speech an effort. ‘Words are useless for describing the world,' he said that first evening in his apartment.

I had made the fatal female mistake of asking what he was thinking. I couldn't believe I had tripped up so easily!

‘I didn't ask you to describe the world,' I said. ‘I only asked what you were thinking.'

‘I'm thinking of soup, a sky I saw one night in Tunisia, of the lines of that stupid Morrissey song. I'm thinking of the number three and the word zero. I'm also thinking about the meaning of life.' It was possibly the longest speech I had heard from him.

‘You are not,' I said.

‘I might be,' he replied, smiling.

I still suffered from that female complaint of wanting to know everything. He had already told me that when he was fifteen he had saved a girl from drowning. Being literal-minded, a girl with no imagination, I imagined that this event merely prefigured every other drowning woman in his life who would cling to his neck.

When we finally lay upon his mattress later that night I wondered if the wishes of drowning girls were the reason the beautiful lover approached me in such a nervy, startled way, as if at any moment he might be dragged under.

In the act of love he was soft and fluttery, and came almost as soon as he entered me. ‘Sorry, my love,' he said. ‘That was like a sparrow.'

‘What do you mean?'

‘A sparrow's fuck,' he said. ‘Fast and light.'

But every time after that was like the first: a soft, gentle flutter as of startled wings, a spurt, over in seconds. Nevertheless I enjoyed the birdlike grace of it.

He soon made it clear that he was already leaving. ‘I'm moving to Tunisia in May,' he said.

‘Wonderful,' I said. ‘I've never been to Tunisia. I'll come and visit.'

‘Yes, you must,' he said, in the same way that people often say they must catch up sometime.

He was not my boyfriend. We rarely went out together and when we did I found the experience unsettling because of the stares. I never established the beautiful lover's exact relationship to me. I could not tell you what I was to him either.

The last night I spent with him before he moved to Tunisia I sat in a chair opposite the mattress on the floor, itemising the beauty of his face.

I noted the architecture of the bones beneath his skin, the well-cut lines of his nose and his cheekbones. I noted the placement of his eyebrows over his eyes, each a perfectly sculpted arch. I especially admired the way his lips were shaped, perfectly drawn as if modelled on an artist's best drawing.

I left the bedside light on and lay down beside him. His eyelids flickered in a dream, his mouth fell slightly open like the fat, happy mouth of a satiated suckling baby. I reached out to brush the hair from his forehead and he flinched.

I felt important, having a member of beauty's royalty asleep beside me. I will always be grateful that human beauty once came fleetingly to rest upon my pillow.

SIXTY-SEVEN
Breasts

A TRACERY OF FINGERS, A
body mapped.

A body outlined, drawn, weighed down by the impressions of a million fingerprints, lighter than air.

The tracery of fingerprints a body has known: the comforting touch, the erotic stroke, the arm pulled too hard by a lost husband, the wrist grabbed too insistently by a skinny boy child seeking your immediate attention.

How you loved lying next to that boy, skin to skin, nose to nose. When that boy was a baby lying tucked into your arm he turned his head towards yours, so that his small face was directly in the path of your warm breath. The tiny hands of that baby boy, splayed against your breast, the miniscule fingerprints engraved with his signature.

How he loved your breasts, how he made them new again. All those years of hungry lovers sucking at the teat! All those mouths, all those lips, until his! His lips were unkissed, his breath unsullied, as pure as clouds. His new lips washed your lips clean, made your body new again. His lips washed an old heart fresh, made you a virgin.

Once, in those first milky days, you are standing under the shower when milk spurts from your breasts. You hadn't known that your nipples contain barely perceptible tiny perforations, so that when the milk comes it sprays out, as if from a shower rose.

How your breasts turned into two new living creatures upon your chest. You have never had big bosoms before, and now you look like a page-three girl.

Your new husband is pleased.

Your new husband is not pleased about the baby.

He feels the baby is taking up too much of your attention.

He feels the baby's cries are too loud.

He feels put upon, unjustly harnessed to the onerous task of bringing in the bacon.

When you hold your new husband's head against your page-three breasts it is like cradling a horse's head because the baby's head is no bigger than an orange.

Your hungry lovers loved your breasts, page three or not. A fine bosom, high, pink-nippled, girlish. The only thing that changed after the birth of your son was that the pink, girlish hue turned a deeper colour. They remained girlish and high for the longest time, long after your son stopped supping at their teats, long after he was grown, long after endless men had stopped sucking upon them, long after Steph lost a breast to cancer.

How you and Steph mourned that lost breast. Steph never had children and she told you her breasts remained sexual emblems. ‘I have to look at them in an entirely new way now,' she said and then she laughed. ‘Correction. I have to look at “it” in an entirely new way.' She tried to laugh but it turned into a sob.

By then our bodies were turning into maps, figurative representations of what we had lived, loved and suffered. Soon, anyone would be able to read our histories in the fault lines of our skins, in the former succulence of our lips, in the archaeology of our shameless, ruined faces. How vain we started, how humbled we finished.

SIXTY-EIGHT
The house she fell in love with

THE HOUSE, THAT OBJECT LOVER,
was never hers. It belonged to Horatia, who had it designed to her specifications.

One blue evening in Paris, Horatia told her about it, but nothing Horatia said prepared her for its beauty.

The house was in Corsica. A mountain rose up behind it, looming, preposterous, too full for the eye, snow-capped, even in blazing summer. So close it seemed anyone might reach it in a hundred steps.

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
8.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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