By Carmen Rizea Barbos
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"Dans la vie l'essentiel est de porter sur tout
des jugements a priori. Il apparaît, en effet,
que les masses ont toujours tort, et les
individus toujours raison. Il faut se garder
d'en déduire des règles de conduite: elles
ne doivent pas avoir besoin d'être formulées
pour qu'on les suive. Il y a seulement
deux choses: c'est l'amour, de toutes les
façons, avec des jolies filles, et la musique
de La Nouvelle-Orléans ou de Duke
I had again tried to take what I thought was one of my best shots these days. It's funny to look at yourself and realise how simple it is to misinterpret easy time for eternal truth and pinpoint glossy samey moments thinking, wow, look at this one... I will CERTAINLY remember it. And then again you can be sure that you will look for that very clip of time in your memory and only find (if ever) the suds of what it really was: paillettes, Sunday night love emergency, pleasant polite relaxation or even flimsy distracted isolated thoughts one can easily identify with indulgence into light self-pity. But I don't mind being wrong again. It's just a question of how mature or disappointed your perception is about previous events that co-occurred with the same lingering impact in your life.
I was sitting in a smoky corner of an Irish pub, The Coolin' near to Marché Saint-Germain des Près on a quiet warm Sunday evening over-satisfied with the idea of being there right before the weekly Jazz band would perform its lilting version of well known 'Summertime', 'My baby only cares for me' transparent songs and I was enjoying a blond generous pint of Belgian beer. For once I wasn't stressed at all so I was leafing with tactical attention through Paris Voice journal, insisting maybe a minute too many on adds and scrappy pictures of ready-made and already-made young artists proposing intricate forms of postmodern furniture which sometimes made you ask yourself if you weren't reading the column upside-down. Anyway, form follows function and function follows fiasco.
I had only got there a few minutes before, breathless for having run in the subway to get a good place right in front of the window and so be able to perfectly view the most recent items of advertising posted on the curved walls of the Parisian metropolitan. Once I got in the pub I briefly checked my pocket and my fingers had dug for the four last euros I had for that weekend. First, I had hesitated between going to catch a movie or just hanging out and the second choice seemed more like it since I knew there would be jazz and cool smoking, not to mention the oncoming journal. The bartender was the same blue eyed red haired Irishman whom I remembered to have a soft spot for lounge music, grey thin cigarettes and overdone French fries. This place seemed to have totally fallen out of time or refill a complete circuit of seasons because the ceiling was altogether obscured by the same wooden mandolins and the lavender scented layer of dust on the books lying in deep slumber on the shelves looked as yellow a ever. I felt home there. Better than home. I felt so well I couldn't help from watching my reflection in the sober windowpane just to see myself looking happy and relaxed. Yet, I took another cigarette out of the blue pack but it was just a reflex, there was nothing to worry about, it was going to be a quiet end-of-the-weekend blues.
Nevertheless I eyed the people sitting around and next to me and keeping a certain healthy distance. Most of them were students like me and some were reading thick pretentious looking books, the type that does your head in. It was odd to see that they were sitting by themselves with no intention to disturb or interact with the others. Each and every one of them must have known more about solaced loneliness than God himself reigning supreme and alone up there. But they too looked happy with being there and it was a relief to imagine all of us to be accomplices of the same reality or being torn apart by the same dismantled and therefore never true beliefs. They were just people to me. Nothing more. And I was someone among them with no particular sign or feature to single me out. It was comfortable to feel your spirit cosily wrapped up in these foreign entities and to sink deep into secure anonymity.
But then something happened. It looked as if things weren't calm and clear anymore. It was only a mere sensation and yet, somehow, I knew it was more to it. All of a sudden a got a fit of panic because I wasn't prepared for anything spectacular, my body had already found a snug consistence of chocolate cookie with maybe, just maybe a touch of wine on it and a spot of fresh glittering icing but there was no way I would add spice on. First, I tried to realise if something had changed in the apparent display of shapes and hues and I found nothing unfamiliar. They had already begun their song, a brunette fleshy singer was singing with an unearthly voice a tune I knew from somewhere, I couldn't remember if it was from a tape or just a hit on the radio, and I had heard the bartender loudly shouting to her before she stepped on the stage 'go get'em, girl!'.
And then it hit me. There could be no mistake about it. The feeling that had come to disturb so insidiously what was supposed and hoped to be a night of quiet out-of-the-world-and-into-the-music sort of silenced breathing in and out, just in and then out with no possible change or interruption, well it was...Lust. Restless cruel unimaginable lust. As I had never experienced it, not in the most agitated heart-stopping manner it had ever come to me in the arms of a lover or in missing someone for long gone or even in finding him behind a front door I would recklessly open late at night without as much as dreaming of somebody being there, let alone waiting to love me. And it's such a strange feeling, for you are sitting there in pointless dissolution and all of a sudden you have this aggressive sensation coming after you, without the least warning, and you feel guilty and a bit distressed, unable to control the blood flooding violently up your cheeks and your heart throbbing going madly wild. And there is no use in trying to temper this conspicuous new element that immerses in your complexion, your mind and soul. Don't think of me, you tell yourself and yet you come to realise you are terribly well-dressed for the night, your nails are neatly polished and the smoke of your cigarettes is perfumed and soon shaped in suspension, waiting, luring. Because there is no surprise you are the only one dressed in black for the assistance to fall in, no haphazard placed you in such a perfectly strategic point from where you cannot possibly miss the slightest crumble from the passing night. What drives you crazy most of all is that you don't feel embarrassed in any way, on the contrary, there is such a serious whiff of power coming from your person, you exhale such need for energy to be consumed, for amber elastic sticks to be burned, for attention to be overcome. One of your hands feels uneasy on the silk stockings whereas the other stops clutching the cigarette but only keeps it delicately from dropping. Form follows function. Delicacy follows lust...You are no longer 'people' in a corner but a creature ghastly suffering from the painful contraction of every single living cell. You have 'le diable au corps' and even if you are a bit reluctant to accept it there is no way you will deny it either. One might think in such moments the brain is a sheer mess but no, not at all, everything is connected, strangely disciplined, frightfully sane and delirious at the same time. I knew nobody had yet noticed it but it was screaming out of me, protruding through the derma and away into the thick night. Shivers were a real problem. A sort of gusts of internal wind made your skin perfectly distinct and you could watch the hues of your elbows sobering profoundly into the protective shirt and then crossing your superior half to get out from under the collar and get lost in the temples and finally colour the interior of your thoughts. I felt I could have stayed there for hours on end watching myself change and then comfortably burst in this new wonderful me .
But lust is a rabid visitor in such a furious hurry that he might be the only one to outrun death. I didn't have any time to discuss it with my own private self; I didn't belong to me anymore. It took me a few minutes to lose contact and waste control over me. I could only tell that music was deeper and night overwhelmed with growing appetite and I knew I was dealing with a special strenuous type of hunger I could clearly discern through any other want.
Of course, people hadn't noticed anything, but the light had faded out, the ceiling grew fat with lemon liquor flooding and pumping from the floor too and into the tables which had become like plants absorbing some profound alcohol so that the glass filled of itself with red wine as in a mystery tale and the cigarette smoke lay asleep on this liquid bed circled in the brimful transparent object.
I was no longer alone. There was a man standing in front of me, once again as if things got progressing in their own logic that joined mine perfectly. Whoever had provided the wine was now providing the access to a plain reality which was to be sought but unlikely to be achieved and yet... The material revelation of this world that had just finished to come into being was almost impossible to bear, simply exhausting. Incredibly incredible...He was almost beyond imagination, almost as if I had created him myself. Kneaded out from my inner thoughts. Like the utter correlation of the cause-effect principle. The 'pour-sugar-into water-it-will-be-sweet' certainty. The undeniable expression of hollow space and eye meant to meet. Desperately beautiful.
Nothing could ever distract the view in such a perfect match. He was smiling and looked quite fidgety. He asked me in French if the seat next to me was vacant and then it appeared normal that the only remaining empty chair in the pub was definitely that one. He sat and vividly looked over his right shoulder to check if the bartender was close enough to see his soft sign. 'Monsieur prend un apéritif? Irish coffee? Coming right up'. He disappeared into the music and inside the womb of the pub and I had forgotten him even before that. The Jazz girl seemed to be at the paramount of her performance, it was no more a song but a mere complaint. The perfume from the man now sitting next to me came at me in a rush exactly in the same way the blizzard slams a door open with zest of snowflakes. It was Christian Dior's Fahrenheit pour homme. His hands were resting abandoned under the brown cylinder of whiskey and coffee cream. He had silver buttons at the end of his sleeves and they recurrently hit the edge of the table with a quiet thud. I was holding my breath watching him sip his drink while I was still holding the back wall in the corner of the eye. In my imagination the wall was moving slowly and pressing me against the table in a feeling which had turned into a terrible urge to lean forward. So I leant forward. 'The music is marvellous tonight. It's the first time they got a professional band. I hear they only perform in very private parties'.
Who in the world was speaking?? For a moment I suspected it was myself. Well...it was! I had no idea where I came with that from. I didn't know anything about the band, or the songs, or about jazz for that matter. I only knew I liked it and I had never given it a further thought. Music was to me just a pleasure not an issue, or maybe a literary one as it were from 'L'écume des jours' de Boris Vian and in which the blossom of love became a mortal disease as beautiful and as mysterious as can be a white water lily. Remember the shrinking rooms? How come I was so aware of all these minute details all of a sudden? I was just lying, that's all. But it was a spur of inspiration and I just let myself go with the idea of a shrinking space, I just needed one right then and there. He was still smiling at me and he replied that he was a jazzman himself, a guitar player, and that he personally knew the girl who sang that night. Actually she was his sister. They were born in Paris? Oh, yes, both of them but they originally were from Britanny, near the coast, from Saint Malo. She was a good singer... Had a hard life. He used to play the piano for her in Montmartre, silly songs too, such as 'La Bohème', most probably the very one that made Charles Aznavour famous. Was he still playing the guitar in a band? No, lately he took up teaching guitar but not to kids, no, they were so unaware of real jazz, they made his patience wear thin. No, he only taught guitar to musicians, the ones that normally played for instance rock or folk and wanted to get acquainted with jazz. Professors too. They eventually proved to be the poorest students. Arrogant and of course turning the course into their own, there was nothing to do about it. But he loved playing the guitar so he didn't mind. Did I like Paris?
I felt my heart stop. It was the first question he had asked me for the evening. Did I like Paris? I had written a book about Paris...It was always present in my mind and soul, he went to sleep with me and woke with me in the morning, he was in me, about me, for me. There was nothing in this world a loved more than Paris, no sensation ever so thorough than feeling Paris under my feet, into the food, the drinks, in the sky and water. Again always in the books too, the streets, here in the 14th lived Henry Miller, that was a cubist painter's 'demeure' and there, of course, died Cotrazar in desperate misery, with almost nothing to eat, forlorn and forgotten by his fellow men. At this bus stop I once saw Anconina in a magnificent Mercedes looking lost and I realised he wasn't young anymore and that the 'Goliath' period was well passed. U2 had the video clips for their last album shot at CDG and I always look at the tiniest house in Paris described by Umberto Eco in 'Foucault's Pendulum' whenever I take the bateau-mouche...God, how can you say all these things as a response to a trivial question? How could I possibly explain I WAS always in Montmartre even if I was miles away?
Of course I loved Paris. It was a beautiful town. There, I had said it. It wasn't so difficult to summarise. And yet I couldn't tell if he understood what I meant.
He wasn't close shaved and he had very blue iron eyes that made his young beard look even blacker. And I felt the table going warm from our four hands lying there apparently dormant. His were piano and guitar hands. Under the spell the wood began to shake imperceptibly with little steady vibrations. I was proud I had two hands like that next to mine, so proud I felt tears coming into my both eyes. He was dressed in black too but he had this snow-white shirt pointing out from under the suit and it got me dizzy every time I would look at it. A gitano boy came in with a bunch of red roses with no pins but only tenderness. We both said no with a silent voice and we both smiled. The music had changed; it was pepping up now and flowing rapidly with short pulses springing green.
Do you ever dance on it? Yes I sometimes do. Not me, I'd rather listen but it's true that every once in a while I get wild; it drives me mad if I don't dance. What about now? Oh, no, I don't think I could. I wear too high heels.
He took a look under the table to my legs and I saw he was actually watching the knees and it was so obvious I was wearing a leather skirt. And a rather short one I might add. The high heels were of course, on top of it.
Are you hungry? Well, a little, yes, but I don't know if we can get anything at this hour of the night. Maybe French fries and salad. That will do. Meanwhile let's have another round.
The gitano boy came in again with the same bunch of red roses and it all looked like a bizarre déjà-vu and we both said no again at the same time and we started laughing as he turned away into oblivion. Only then I noticed this man sitting at the same table with me was just lovely. I had been aware that he was handsome but I had only wanted him on the spot, and wanted his hands to touch mine and wanted him so badly it hurt, but now I was falling in love with him for real. What had been lust and temptation and a half-dangerous game was now torment, I only felt pain and distress and I knew I was somewhere in between loneliness far behind and far ahead...So I wanted to stick with the moment, to never let it go, forever imprison it in my present. Was it possible? Sure it was! It's 'one of those things', isn't it? And what if it was just one of 'those bells that now and then ring'?
The barman came with a bowl of fresh salad in green and dark crimson leaves and a plate with French crusty fries. We took another round of red wine and you could smell the invisible nuggets of mustard in the sauce vinaigrette and the spicy croûtons de pain. I loved the night and I loved the man in front of me and the food was just perfect.
Do you believe in God? Well, I said, I have a reply which always works so I'll tell it to you: I don't believe in god but I'm afraid of him. It's not mine; it's Shopenhauer's...Now that's one of the most intelligent things I've ever heard! To dodge a question like that so subtly. Yes, but there is a lot of sadness in it too, don't you think? Yes, a bit maybe. Must be the paradox. Paradoxes are always saddening, frustrating. But they are safe too. You don't really have to take sides. All you have to do is watch from a distance....I agree, but then again you are neither in, nor out, neither in hell nor in paradise. Just...left aside. Well, I guess you can never have it all. If you refuse to take chances you have to content yourself with the remains. He looked deep into my eyes. I saw he was very serious. But were we actually talking about God or was it more to it than just that? I decided that there was more. The gitano boy appeared from outside the third time and when he saw him he began to laugh quietly watching me with an irresistible happy look in his eyes because the whole thing was soooo funny, so hopelessly funny.
Well, I said, if he comes the fourth time then I WILL GET YOU A ROSE. Who said only women should be offered flowers? I looked at him again and I thought I could have bought him all the roses in the world, red, white, pink and blue confounded. I knew there had to be a light in my eyes when thinking that and I preyed he wasn't without knowing it in his turn.
What was the name of that jazzman in 'L'écume des jours' de Boris Vian? I say this because I can't really remember. I read the book a long time ago. It was something about a little musical mouse and a strange pianocktail, a word for a sort of mixed jazz forms Vian had invented. And I also remember a love story with a girl who eventually got a water lily in her lungs and she had to smell flowers all the time to prevent the one inside from growing. And the closer she came to death, the more the rooms in which she used to stay...shrank. It's strange but come to think of it, I suppose that when you are about to die you become claustrophobic, the world is not big enough anymore. Did you ever lose anyone dear to you?
No, I didn't. And it's funny, I don't remember this jazz singer's name either, and I should, I mean he is famous. And speaking of death, I think I was always influenced by sort of a morbid vision of things, it just seems that death is the only serious thing down here. And by serious I mean that it is the only thing that is worth pondering about. For instance, Camus said that if there was a true philosophical matter to be discussed, well that was suicide. The leap. The before and especially the after. And you? Ever lost someone?
Not personally, no, but a girl I was deeply in affection with and whom I had parted, lost the love of her life in a car crush. He was a speeder and one day he just hit a tree. It was no wonder it happened. Sort of a DOA thing...But she never knew he died for about five days. She called people in his office and they just told her he had been killed in a crush. We hadn't been seeing each other for months and the only reason I came to know is because she sent me a message on my cell phone which said, as I recall 'life is such a garbage pail'. And it was totally misplaced to receive a distress call like that out of the blue -because it was one- and just have your whole life ripped away by someone else's tragedy, someone you never met before. And only because you loved the girl. Unfair...And this is the least I can say. Oh, but it's not important, let's not think of that tonight, please...
His story had put me off, of course, but not enough to make me lose my balance. That is the danger of talking philosophy late at night, it always brings about painful memories and we all have this secret bunch of love-and-death affairs, almost unbearable, but which completely disturb us when they end. And he was right to say it was unfair because there is too much sadness going on, knowing that we only have one heart to break.
Uhm! The salad is just delicious. Almost an artist's touch. And it's a typical French cuisine recipe even though we are in an Irish pub. Can't get away from Paris in Paris. C'est le cachet de la maison...Give me your hand, please. You have a big hand for such a little girl. Hm. I see there's a lovely life in store for you. And a big love too, he smiled.
I shrugged. What about you? What do you intend to do next in your life?
Well... I don't know what I want but I know I'll get it...
I knew he meant it. His eyes turned sharp all of a sudden. He sometimes had this dark look in his eyes. I was surprised; I thought he was a happy fulfilled man. He just looked as if he had everything to have it all his way. There was probably some girl too, a very beautiful one I thought with a shudder but I didn't let the thought get to me. I didn't care. There is always someone in everyone's life so why bother?
Do you know I can speak German? No way, you are pulling my leg! Yeah, it's not true. I can only speak French. It's a torture for a jazzman not to speak English for example. My English is extremely poor and my French writing is nothing to boast about either...I just don't have the gift for that, it's sad when you think of it.
I was so happy... I was so very pleased this person there in front of me wasn't flawless. I couldn't deal a perfect man. I just didn't feel up to it. I needed someone tangible, accessible, and there he was, the exact way I wanted him to be. I reached for the glass and it struck me that my head was mildly spinning and I thought hey, hey, hey, you are not going to get fuzzy, are you? It's far too early for that. I shortly scrolled in mind the list of the drinks I had taken and it only showed beer and wine, it was reassuring but I couldn't tell how many glasses that made. Three, maybe four. Or was it five?? Not to mention that enigmatic glass that had ghostly filled up on the unawares and I remembered they used to mix laudanum and alcohol in order to provoke inspiration or just have a sharper ear when going to the opera, not much, only a goblet so as to avoid delirium tremens. Or maybe there hadn't been wine after all, but just a medieval geis, un 'philtre enchanté'...And if it's too early then what time is it? Wow! Midnight sharp...I have to seriously begin considering taking the metro back home if I really want to make it there before dawn. Shake off my crystal shoe and rush out in a jiffy. I was told that Perrault's story had suffered a modification because in the original version there was a 'pantoufle de vaire' which is a soft leather, and then somehow, somebody misspelt 'vaire' for 'verre' and now Cinderella got crystal shoes because the translation and the fabulous context wanted it, whereas reality was ten times simpler than that. So I resigned in thinking that it wasn't so bad after all, I could wait a few more hours and get the metro early in the morning or just take a cab later on.
I had all this on my mind while I was talking vigorously about cinema and Pasolini discussing pretty flatly the masochistic trend in the 50ies which was according to me a pretext of gratifying art for having trespassed ethics and let aesthetics a free road to go down on. And it was not only the ugly of it all but also a bitter bread to chew on for the public who was always there when it came to self-abasing 'tranches de vie' and pure disgust and I was under the impression Pasolini was obnoxious and his art was nothing of a true value and I was feeling well while saying this because I was sure it was a bold exploit as to dare ruthlessly bring down sacred monsters.
You are such a pipelette. And funny too. I love your sense of humour. Sometimes people are just so boring. You can never know if they really mean what they say or if it's only showing off. But it's self-evident you have genuine enthusiasm. You are authentic. Shall we have a coffee?
So, he wanted to leave...Coffee meant night is over, it was nice and all but we have to move on to something else, oh, no, not that your conversation is not brilliant but I just need a few hours sleep, tomorrow is Monday and hey, I got this new job in computer graphic arts, didn't I tell you I was a graphic designer too? Nothing special, no programming, just advertising design but so extremely, totally, tiring. It can bring a man down. I've been working through the week-end on a project and tomorrow is a 'close encounter', the boss is going to tell me if I'm in or out. And I definitely need to be in. It's a must...
Of course, he didn't say all that, it was all in my imagination, he had just asked if we should have a coffee but it was so dangerous a thing, so full of sadness because I knew I was beautiful and attractive and fun to be with but all the same, somehow, it had to reach a blank point from where you could no longer look back and end was about to fatally occur.
Scratch that thought!!! I wasn't ready. But then I saw he didn't look bored or anything, actually he seemed pretty impressed, even easily flustered. So I felt a little bit more confident in exchange. While we were waiting for the coffee I was doing all the talking but it was striking that as the night was wearing away the moments of silence were more and more present even if there was no apparent distraction for either of us and no brief glance at the watch had suppressed any of the topics. I was cudgelling my brains for an interesting piece of conversation and soon I had been through all the 'mondain' subjects like racism being a false problem, drama not being what it used to be anymore, Délanoë having done a great thing with 'Paris Plage' for the summer and looking forward to 'les fêtes de la musique' which were supposed to be a hit, almost as much as 'la fête du Beaujolais' or the 'nuits blanches'.
Would you like to make love to me tonight? he said.
Well, for a simple question it was a simple one. Just nine perfectly normal words. A mere innocent invitation... 'Would you care for ice in your glass' would have been completely shocking and 'let's ask for the bill, shall we?' would have been utterly 'inadmissible'. But nothing like that had been asked or proposed so there was no reason to worry. And there is a moment, a very short one, maybe half a second, when you just don't know what is happening, when the world is in suspension, even without looking around you can tell that the singer stopped singing, the bartender waits with a full ashtray in his hand and everybody in the room stares at you wondering if by any chance you didn't happen to be the only one there not to have heard the question. And then you understand the whole meaning of the sentence and everything goes on quickly as in fast forward, people around energetically applause because she had just finished the last song and she lowers her head in extreme exhaustion and satisfaction in order to receive their admiration and respect and to secretly hope she somehow rendered them happier and less mortal that night.
And then...it was impossible and yet it happened. Total profound unmistakable Magic. The world suddenly filled up with the image of the monumental bunch of red roses hold by the gitano boy who stood on my right looking almost religiously still. One could say a statue in metiss marble. Motionless -it seemed to me- I reached for the four euros in my pocket and they burned my hands as I gave them to the gypsy. Even now I still have the round indelible mark in the palm of my hand. A few seconds later I was holding a cold dark and extremely long stem devoid of pins and which grew longer and longer since the upper part pierced the ceiling and the lower one got planted deep in the floor and down to the basement. And only then did I realise that the room with all that smoke, glasses, books and people in it started to spin faster and faster around that living stick I was holding. 'Useless to wait/ For the axis of the Earth/ To run through me'... It was a haï-ku I once made...
What was the name of that jazz singer in 'L'écume des jours'?'
I wanted to hand the flower to him but then I remembered I had a pair of scissors in my knapsack the existence of which I couldn't possibly account how or why it was there. My eyes just lost perception; I didn't see anything as I took those scissors out and rounded my thumb and index in the icy handle. My right hand reached for the flower and with a sigh I circumcised the stem three quarters from the bottom.
I just don't recall...And I can tell it's weird... I mean he's so famous....I just think there was a story about a pianocktail which was the metaphor for lung cancer...Or maybe it was a water lily.
Now it was just a little stick that could fit in a matchbox, it was easy to hold and even to wear. It was not even cold anymore and the world had long stopped from spinning around it. Only then and then only I handed it to him.
Yes, but what about that musical mouse? Oh, it's all coming right back to me. It was a parody too about that freak, that man who had the complete collection of Jean-Saul Partre- nice 'contrepètrie', don't you think-, all the editions, several copies of the same work like 'l'Etre et le Néant' or the 'Nausea' -god did I hate that book but did I like the end of it only because the whole sticky world he had imagined got solid over a simple jazz song, 'One of these days you'll miss me honey'.
He took the rose without a word and put it in his boutonnière. You could barely see it on the black suit but I KNEW it was there; I didn't even have to open my eyes to see it.
Mythology too. Remember the girl's name? Chloé! Her name was Chloé. But who the hell was the jazzman in the story???
We looked at each other with feverish eyes and distraught faces acknowledging only that ravaged anticipative anamnesis of what was going to pass. We were like two athletes, horribly tensed, waiting for a gunshot to spring for the door and into the night. Unbelievable this can still happen in a present lifetime. I could've let my coat on the backseat and the knapsack right where it was without even noticing it was missing. I felt the fresh air on my cheeks and a burning hand hurting mine for clutching it. And I could hear far behind the bartender's voice as if coming from beyond lunacy saying 'It's on the house anyway!'
Well I guess they called him 'the Duke'. Duke Ellington.