Read My Hundred Lovers Online

Authors: Susan Johnson

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My Hundred Lovers (22 page)

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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At the front of the house was a valley, fashioned with low hills, and here and there a great craggy string of cliffs arose, with little villages perched on top. Directly across from the house was a village the same colour as the cliffs, carved from it, a church at its peak with bells ringing out the hours.

The house was a mix of Corsican stone, left natural, and whitewashed stone, modernist, like a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Inside were cool white tiles, some scattered with the flokati rugs Horatia had collected in Greece over the years.

The house looked like a sculpture. It consisted of several cubes linked by passages and walkways, ponds and rockeries, and each section had its own distinct and memorable character.

On top of one cube was a roof garden with three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views which looked over all the other roofs of the house and down into the valley and hills below and where she drank a glass of juicy wine and turned her face up to the stars. The mountain behind, the sea far, far away, the folds and sweeps of the valley, green, tawny, more Italian than French, with stone villages atop hills, church spires, and yellow ridges dotted with pines. Every night they ate dinner on the roof and watched the boundless sky change from blue to orange to pink to purple before melting into a deep, inky black.

In the garden around the house were fig trees, grapes, cherries, insects, birds; the air was always scented and hot and quick with life. Every afternoon she dozed in the heat, naked on a white sheet, weightless.

She wanted to live in that house forever, to feel her feet upon its cool white tiles.

She wanted to whitewash its walls every summer and clean out its fireplaces every winter. She wanted to live in it until she grew old, forgotten, like some wizened holy man in a cave.

She could never own it, in the same way she could never own existence. She knew that no-one owned anything, not houses, not lovers, not life. Like everything and everyone, like houses and Mademoiselle Joubert and lines of giggling sisters and dogs and the briefest, lightest croissant
au beurre
, her existence was air.

SIXTY-NINE
The love of hands

IN KEEPING WITH THE FAMILY
tradition of failing to become great men and women ourselves, instead being history's bit players, my father once got drunk in a bar in a small town in Louisville, Kentucky, with the greatest boxer of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali was then not yet a great boxer. He still went by the name of Cassius, which my father believed was Roman, as in Emperor Cassius. He was not a great drinker either, Emperor Cassius. ‘He was a two-pot screamer,' said my father. ‘He couldn't hold his grog.'

How my father happened to be in the same Louisville bar as Cassius Clay I never found out. My father was everywhere for a while, travelling on his magic carpet, appearing and disappearing in a blink. I do know that as the night wore on Emperor Cassius and my father stole a hat stand from the bar and waltzed it down the street.

‘Can you remember anything else? You know, anything he said about civil rights or boxing or religion?'

‘Nope,' he said.

Besides waltzing a hat stand down the street the only thing my father recalled was Emperor Cassius asking him to place his hand on the bar. ‘He put his hand next to mine,' my father said. ‘Maybe he was measuring the difference.'

Ever since I have tried to make out Muhammad Ali's hands in photographs and film clips. The bones of the palms, the four bones of the fingers, the knuckles, the web of tendons and veins beneath the skin, the principal tool of the body to reach out and grasp the world. The first part of the body to be held out in greeting, in friendship, in meeting. In some countries, after a handshake, the palm of the hand is placed against the heart.

The average length of an adult male hand is one hundred and eighty-nine millimetres. Each fingertip holds a dense web of nerve endings.

My father's hands were not of average length, being as small as a girl's. Perhaps Emperor Cassius admired my father's small, defenceless lily-white hands, so useless at catching, so different from his own hands, faster than a striking snake, capable of felling all comers.

Because my own small hands have a tendency to sweat, I have never liked holding hands. I was even anxious about holding hands with my small son. When he was eight my son told me that he no longer wished to hold my worried hand.

My hands hold anger as well as my worries. Once, in a fit of temper, I placed my hands around my adolescent son's neck. Once, in despair, I slapped my small hand across my sister's beautiful face.

Recently I saw footage of Muhammad Ali, reduced to pure body by the end. His mind was elsewhere, his hands calcified, numb, their stories lost to him. His hands were now catchless too, those same hands that once stung like a bee.

SEVENTY
The worried lover

AFTER THE BEAUTIFUL LOVER LEFT
for Tunisia, after spring had ended and the Suspicious Wanderer moved out of Horatia's flat into a small studio of her own belonging to an American academic, her life once again fell into a pattern. She noted that even wandering, unclaimed persons crave order, a design to place upon the plotless days.

She didn't walk the streets as much as she used to. For a start she was busier, working in the mornings on numerous proofreading jobs and in the afternoons and evenings teaching the English classes she still ran out of Horatia's sumptuous apartment. She earned enough to pay her rent and to shop every Wednesday and Saturday at the market at the end of her street. She earned enough for an occasional meal and a small
pichet
of wine at a cheap restaurant. On rare instances when she had coffee and a croissant she always stood at the counter instead of sitting down, because it was cheaper, and if she ever went to bars with friends she kept the same drink in her hand throughout the night. Her studio was in the thirteenth arrondissement, near the
périphérique
, in a rundown part of rue Jeanne d'Arc, and she chose it because she liked the name of the street.

By then she was eligible for a much-coveted
carte de séjour.
By then she had heard of AIDS, known in France as SIDA. To get her
carte
de séjour
she had to have an AIDS test, to find out whether all that condom-free sex had killed her.

By then all the lovers of the world were crowding in on her. By then, she felt jostled by elbows, torsos, knees. Sometimes the teeth of strangers appeared too close and she imagined she heard the sound of tooth against tooth, as if accidentally knocking teeth when kissing. The thought of opening her mouth to a stranger, of having an unknown tongue swimming against her own, repulsed her. She, who had always loved kissing! The thought of having an unknown penis enter her body struck her as ludicrous, impossible. She was so tired of endless lessons involving the tongue, the hands, the ears, the belly and the fallible heart.

Even though the Suspicious Wanderer tested negative for HIV, she began to imagine that the virus lurked undetected in her blood. Wasn't it possible that it existed, not yet manifested? Wasn't it possible that her body was polluted, that in truth it was a shameful, dark thing, too little loved?

At night all the lovers she had known swam around her head. Leonardo della Francesca, the shadow lover, Stephen Porter, the Scandinavian lover with the too-full lips, the long-lost Nina Payne, the dissolute lover. Had she loved any of them? Had anyone loved her? She remembered that Jonathan Jamieson had loved her, and she had loved him. She remembered that love was supposed to mean desiring the happiness of the lover as much as one desired it for oneself. It meant letting a house or a dress or a person be themselves or itself, without imposing your own wants or desires, without confusing the lover with someone else or with anything they were not. Let the leaf be the leaf, let the dress be the dress, let the lover be himself or herself, unopposed!

Had she been kind enough? Had she listened hard enough or well enough? Oh, too late, too late! She was ready to give herself up to the practice of love just as her body was dying!

She wrote to Ro in Sydney, who wrote back advising her to have another test.
Has anyone ever told you you're a fuckwit?
Ro wrote.
Don't be
an idiot, Deb, just have another test. Honestly, you are the most neurotic woman I've
ever known. It's lucky I'm fond of you. Here's my diagnosis, free of charge: you haven't
got AIDS.

Steph did not yet know about the Suspicious Wanderer's AIDS hysteria. By chance she wrote to the Suspicious Wanderer to tell her that a mutual friend, Vanessa, a heterosexual woman, had just been diagnosed with HIV. She contracted it during a one-night stand, having sex without a condom.

By the time Ro spoke to Steph, and Steph called the Suspicious Wanderer in Paris, she was nearly out of her mind. ‘You do know that Vanessa slept with the man in Zimbabwe, don't you, where half the population carries HIV?' But nothing Steph said could convince the Suspicious Wanderer that she was not dying because, like all irrational fears, they were the hardest to eradicate.

One of Horatia's oldest friends was a distinguished doctor and she introduced him to the Suspicious Wanderer. They liked each other at once, for Bertrand had an outrageous sense of humour which appealed to her, as hers appealed to him. He worked out of a famous teaching hospital, the Pitié-Salpêtrière, and at a dinner party at Horatia's one night she managed to ask him a few questions about AIDS. A gay man himself, with a partner of some thirty-five years, Bertrand was of the opinion that it was a most interesting disease, the progress of which was impossible to predict.

‘There will be growth, then decline,
peut-être
,' he said. ‘This is
normale
. It will possibly destroy parts of
la population africaine
.'

‘How long does it take to manifest itself in the blood?' she asked.

He looked at her, hard. ‘Come and see me in my clinic,
ma
chère fille.
'

The Pitié-Salpêtrière was a beautiful building, possibly used in earlier days to display the fallen heads of kings and queens. Paris's proud history was beginning to strike her as too proud, too overbearing. She was beginning to hate buildings with a history as long as your arm and starting to think fondly of Australia and its puny buildings with no collective memories.

Bertrand was behind his desk, smoking a cheroot. At least she assumed it was a cheroot because it was not a cigarette. The
ne pas
fumer
laws were only just starting to come in, and bars were still full of smokers, with a reserved section at the centre of the bar for non-smokers. She had sometimes stood beside a small
ne pas fumer
sign in a bar, smoking her heart out. ‘Death by pleasure,' Bertrand said and smiled at her.

‘Sorry,' she said in English. ‘The bus was late.' She appeared to have forgotten her French.

‘Paris used to be inhabited by citizens,' Bertrand said. ‘Now it is an office. Philippe thinks we should move to Algiers.'

She smiled at him. She no longer knew what she was doing there and what it was that had once seemed so urgent to say.

Bertrand did not speak further but continued to smoke. She had seen Frenchmen break for cigarettes between tennis sets, and once she had seen two women smoking in a public swimming pool, their legs and torsos immersed in water, their shoulders and arms resting against the ledge of the pool.

‘Think of me as a tin opener,
ma chère fille
,' Bertrand said. ‘You cannot tell me anything that will shock me. I already know that the most extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. I know that ordinary people have the most extraordinary lives.'

He offered her a coffee, and when she accepted he picked up a beautiful little bell on his desk, some kind of antique, and rang it. A secretary came in, a middle-aged woman who looked like she might have been a French actress, with a big sultry mouth and hair in her eyes.

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
8.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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