“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.