Chapter 2 (part 2 of 3)
One day something completely unexpected happened. It began with the appearance of an impending disaster and finished with an unhoped for surprise, but so suddenly and with so trivial a gesture that all my later happiness rested on it like a scaffolding of heteroclite objects held in balance by a juggler at a single point.
Clara, with a single step, changed the whole content of my visits, giving them another interest and new anxieties, as in that chemical experiment in which we see how a single bit of crystal immersed in a bowl of red liquid transforms it instantaneously into an amazing green.
I was on the sofa, in the same place, waiting with the same impatience as always, when the door opened and someone came into the shop. Eugen left the dressing room immediately. Everything seemed lost. Clara continued to perform her toilette, indifferent, while the conversation in the shop went on endlessly. Still, Eugen could have come back before his sister finished dressing.
Painfully I followed the thread of these two events, Clara’s toilette and the conversation in the shop, thinking that they could unfold in parallel mode until Clara went out into the shop, or on the contrary they could meet at a fixed point in the dressing room, as in some cinematographic films where two trains come toward each other at a crazy speed and they will either meet or go around depending on whether or not a mysterious hand intervenes at the last moment to shunt them. In those moments of waiting I felt clearly how the conversation followed its own path while on a parallel track, Clara continued to powder herself . . .
I tried to correct fate by stretching my knees further toward the table. In order to encounter Clara’s legs I had to sit on the edge of the couch in a position that was, if not bizarre, at least comical.
I think Clara was looking at me through the mirror and smiling.
Soon she finished rounding off the contours of her mouth with carmine and passed the powder puff over her face for the last time. The perfume that had spread throughout the dressing room made me dizzy with lust and despair. In the moment that she passed by me the thing that I was least expecting happened: she rubbed her thighs against my knees like always (or maybe more firmly? but this was, of course, an illusion) with an indifferent air as if nothing were going on between us.There is a complicity in vice deeper and quicker than any understanding through words. Instantaneously it traverses the whole body like an interior melody and completely transforms thoughts, flesh, blood.
In the split second when Clara’s legs touched me, immense new expectations and hopes were born.
With Clara I understood everything from the first day, from the first moment; it was my first complete and normal sexual affair. An affair full of torments and waiting, full of anxieties and gnashing of teeth, something that would have resembled love if it had not been a simple continuation of a painful eagerness. In the same measure that I was impulsive and bold, Clara was calm and capricious; she had a violent way of provoking me and experienced a kind of malicious joy at seeing me suffer—joy that always preceded and that was a part of the sexual act itself.
The first time it happened between us, the thing I had been awaiting for so long, its provocation was of such elementary simplicity (almost brutal) that the inadequate phrase that she used then and that anonymous verb that she employed has kept for me, to this day, something of its former virulence. It’s enough for me to think about it for my present indifference to corrode as by acid and the phrase to recapture the violence it had then.
Eugen had gone into town. We were alone in the shop, silent; Clara sat with her legs crossed in her afternoon dress behind the shop window and knitted with great concentration. Some weeks had passed since the incident in the dressing room and a severe coldness had arisen abruptly between us, a secret tension that translated itself into an extreme indifference on her part. We sat for whole hours in front of one another without uttering a word; nevertheless, a perfect and secret understanding floated in this silence like the threat of an explosion. I only lacked the mysterious word that would crack the shell of convention. I made dozens of plans every evening, but the next day they came up against the most elementary obstacles: the knitting that could not be interrupted, the lack of better lighting, the silence in the shop or the three rows of sewing machines, too well-ordered to permit any important changes in the store, even if they were only on the order of feelings. I had my jaws clenched all the time; it was a terrible silence, a silence that, in me, had the shape and substance of a scream. It was Clara who broke the silence. She spoke almost in a whisper, without raising her eyes from the knitting:
“If you had come earlier today, we could have done it. Eugen went into town right after lunch.”
Until then no shadow of a sexual allusion had filtered through our silence, and now here with a few words, a new reality sprang up between us, as miraculous and extraordinary as a marble statue rising up amidst the sewing machines, growing out of the floor.
In an instant I was at Clara’s side, I seized her hand and caressed it violently. I kissed her hand. She snatched it away.
“Leave me alone,” she said, annoyed.
“Please Clara, come . . .”
“It’s too late now, Eugen is coming back, leave me alone, leave me alone.”
I fondled her shoulders, her breasts, her legs, feverishly.
“Leave me alone,” Clara protested.
“Come now, we still have time,” I implored.
“In the dressing room . . . come on . . . it’ll be good there.”
And when I said “good” my chest filled with warm hope. I kissed her hand again and pulled her forcefully from the chair. She allowed herself to be led reluctantly, dragging her feet on the floor.
Starting from that day the afternoons changed their “habits”: It was still about Eugen, still about Clara and the same sonatas; however, now the playing of the violin became intolerable and I lay in wait impatiently for the moment when Eugen had to leave. In the same dressing room my anxieties became something else as if I were playing a new game but using a board with lines drawn for the old game I knew.
When Eugen left, the real waiting began. It was a waiting that was more difficult and intolerable than what I had experienced up to that moment; the silence of the shop transformed itself into a block of ice.
Clara sat at the window and knitted; every day this was the “beginning,” and without it our affair could not take place. Sometimes Eugen went out and left Clara practically undressed in the dressing room; I thought that this would hasten the events but I was mistaken; Clara would not permit another beginning than the one from the shop. I had to wait uselessly for her to get dressed and go out into the shop to open the book of the afternoon to the first page while sitting behind the shop window.
I would sit on a chair in front of her and begin to talk to her, to plead with her, to implore her at length. I knew it was useless; Clara only rarely agreed and even then she resorted to guile in order to deny me perfect license:
“I’m going to take some powder in the dressing room, I have a terrible headache; please don’t follow me.”
I promised on oath and followed her immediately. A veritable battle began in the dressing room in which, evidently, Clara’s forces were disposed to surrender. She then fell on the couch as if she had stumbled on something. She put her hands under her head and closed her eyes as if she had gone to sleep. It was impossible for me to change the position of her body by a centimeter; as she was lying on her side, I had to pull up her dress from under her thighs and cling to her. Clara put up no opposition to my movements, but neither did she facilitate them. She was immobile and indifferent as a block of wood, and only her intimate and secret heat revealed to me that she was attentive and that she “knew.”