“an affair full of torments and waiting”

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.

“Where?”

“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.”

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“a terrible sexual craving squeezed my pubis like a claw”

Chapter 2, part 1 of 3

A physician was consulted about my spells and he pronounced a strange word: “paludism;” I was amazed that something so intimate and secret as my disquietude could have a name, and what’s more, a name so bizarre.  The doctor had prescribed quinine: another cause for amazement.  I found it impossible to understand how the sick spaces, themselves, could have been cured with the quinine that I took.  What disturbed me exceedingly, however, was the physician himself.  Long after the consultation he continued to exist and to stir in my memory with little automatic gestures whose inexhaustible mechanism I couldn’t shut off.

He was a man of small stature with an egg-shaped head.  The pointed end of the egg was elongated by a little black beard that was forever agitated.  His small and velvety eyes, curt gestures and protruding mouth made him resemble a mouse.  This impression was so powerful from the first moment that it seemed completely natural when I heard him prolonging each “r”  sonorously when he began to speak, as if he were continuously munching on something hidden.

The quinine that he gave me also strengthened the conviction that the physician had something mouse-like about him.  The verification of this conviction was made in such a strange way and is related to such important facts of my childhood that a part of the events is worth the telling.

Near our house there was a sewing machine store where I would go every day for hours.  Its owner was a young man, Eugen, who had just finished his military service and had found himself a place in town by opening the shop.  He had a sister who was a year younger than him: Clara.  They lived together in some workingclass neighborhood and looked after the shop during the day; they had neither acquaintances nor relatives.

The shop was a simple private room rented commercially for the first time.

The walls still kept their parlor paint with violet garlands of lilac, and there were discolored rectangular patches where the pictures had hung.  In the middle of the ceiling a bronze lamp had been left, with a dark red majolica cap, covered at the edges with green acanthus leaves set off in faience.  It was an object full of ornamentation, old and obsolete, yet imposing — something that resembled a funeral monument or a veteran general on parade wearing his old uniform.

The sewing machines were lined up smartly in three rows leaving two wide aisles to the back.  Eugen took care to sprinkle the floor every morning using an old can with a hole at the bottom.  The spray of water that flowed out was very thin and Eugen maneuvered it dexterously sketching spirals and masterly figure eights on the floor.  Sometimes he signed his name and wrote the date.  The wall painting called for such delicacy.

At the back of the store a screen made of boards separated a kind of cabin from the rest of the shop; a green curtain covered the entrance.  Eugen and Clara stayed there all the time; they even ate lunch there so they wouldn’t have to leave the shop.  They named it “the actors’ dressing room” and I heard Eugen saying one day: “It’s a true `actors’ dressing room.’  When I go into the shop and talk for half an hour trying to sell a sewing machine, am I not acting in a comedy?”

And then he added in a more learned voice: “Life, in general, is pure theater.”

Behind the curtain Eugen played the violin.  He kept the music on the table and sat bent over them, patiently deciphering the tangled staves as if he were disentangling a ball of string with numerous knots in it in order to pull forth a unique and delicate thread, the thread of music. All afternoon a small gas lamp burned on a chest filling the room with a morose light and distorting an enormous shadow of the violinist on the walls.

I came so often that in time I became a kind of furniture-guest, an extension of the old cerecloth couch on which I sat immobile, a thing that no one bothered about and that bothered no one.

At the back of the “dressing room” Clara would perform her afternoon toilette.  She kept her dresses in a cabinet and looked at herself in a cracked mirror that was propped against a lamp on the chest.  It was such an old mirror that the gilding had faded completely in places, and the real objects behind the mirror appeared through the transparent patches, commingling with the reflected image, like a photograph with superimposed negatives.

Sometimes she undressed almost completely and rubbed some eau de Cologne under her arms, raising them without embarrassment, or on the bosom—putting a hand inside her chemise.  The chemise was short and when she leaned over I could see all of her beautiful legs encased in tight stockings. On the whole she resembled a half-naked woman that I had seen once on a pornographic postcard that a pretzel seller had shown me in the park.

It provoked the same indistinct swoon as had the obscene picture, a kind of void that formed in my chest, while at the same time a terrible sexual craving squeezed my pubis like a claw.

I always stayed in the same place in the “dressing room,”  on the couch behind Eugen and waited for Clara to finish her toilette.  Then she would go out into the store, passing between her brother and me through a space so narrow that she had to rub her thighs against my knees.

I waited for this moment every day with the same impatience and the same agony.  It depended on a mass of trivial circumstances which I weighed and watched for with an exasperating and extraordinarily acute sensibility.  It was enough for Eugen to be thirsty, not to feel like playing or for a customer to come into the shop for him to leave his place by the table, which would mean that there would be enough space for Clara to pass without brushing against me . . .

When I went there in the afternoon and neared the door to the store, long vibrating antennae came out of me and explored the air to catch the sound of the violin; if I heard Eugen playing, a great calm would come over me.  I went in as quietly as possible and at the doorway I would even announce myself so he wouldn’t think a customer had come and interrupt his playing for a second: it was possible that in that second, the inertia and the mirage of the melody would stop abruptly and that Eugen would abandon the violin and not play at all the rest of the afternoon.  That wasn’t the end of the possibility of unfavorable events.  There were still so many things that passed in the dressing room . . .  While Clara performed her toilette, I listened for the smallest sounds and followed the smallest movements for fear that somehow from those would issue the disaster of the afternoon.  It was possible, for instance, for Eugen to cough lightly, to swallow a little saliva and to say suddenly that he was thirsty and that he was going to the cafe to get a pastry; from the infinitely trivial cause as this cough, a lost afternoon resulted, monstrous and enormous.  The whole day would lose its importance and at night in bed, instead of ruminating at leisure (and stopping a few minutes on each detail in order to “see” and remember better) about the moment when my knees touched Clara’s stockings—to dig out, to carve and to caress this thought—I would toss and turn feverishly under the sheets, unable to sleep, waiting impatiently for the next day.