No 150 - 1997
Looking back I was lucky, I was safe. I felt invincible, somehow impregnable. Wandering through the still warm evenings and into the thick nights on my way home from late lessons and later suppers I never felt fear. The darkness that had terrified me all my childhood brought forth no demons in Milan with its wide open spaces full of junkies and whores, its narrow cobbled streets of anonymous tenements and its misty-edged canals lined with beer cellars that circled it like some Dantean Hell. The looks and sounds of the night were lower and lewder than the brazen flatteries of the day but the lechery glanced off my skin like light and the words slithered into the undergrowth of background noise.
I enjoyed the nights in Milan. I delighted in the wicked click of my heels on the flagstones of courtyards and skimming cobblestones in dark smart streets peopled with elegant shadows from the dress shop windows. I grew so bold, or perhaps so arrogant, I even took to walking the whores’ streets.
Between Corso Garibaldi and the Castello where the transvestites hung out, there were mazes of piazzas jam-packed with whores’ cars which served as mobile brothels, either in the piazza itself or if the steamy windows weren’t sufficient cover for the more decorous punters, in parking bays off the main ring road, itself a major site for prostitution. One evening Mr Balls crammed Megan and myself into his jade green Porsche and showed us the sights.
The whores were clumped in covens around small fires, either braziers or simply piles of planks probably from nearby fences, for effect rather than warmth. Their faces glowed ghastly in the flame-light and as the cars passed they would pull apart their invariably fur coats to reveal naked bodies or lurid flesh bound with leather belts, bras and garters. Leather was actually very much di moda - even in the heat a pair of brown leather jeans was as necessary to an up-to-date wardrobe as the tartan-bowed Yorkshire terriers which the women slipped under their arms like clutch bags.
The whores however had their own sort of dogs to deal with, the men who prowled the autostrada, sniffing out the hottest bitches. I was stunned at the circus - it was truly obscene - capable of depraving and corrupting the whole of humanity. Sex for sale in its crudest form. Those women who claim that marriage is prostitution have never cruised the outskirts of Milan. Mr Balls was pointing out the prettiest ones, usually transvestites. He appeared to be enjoying himself but Megan kept saying, “It’s disgusting, quite disgusting,” and eventually after the third circuit I asked if we could go home.
I didn’t have a car to cruise in but I walked the night streets of Milan with an aplomb worthy of professionals and I wonder to this day if Mr C knew it was his wife’s English teacher he approached as I wandered between the whore-strewn cars in Piazza Nera.
I felt a hand twist in my loose hair and stopped dead. I did not recognise the voice immediately, but I knew it was not James’, “Lasciami cazzo, non sono prostituta.”
I heard a deep rich laugh behind me and the hand slipped through my hair and on to my shoulder as my assailant drew beside me, “Ma cara Giulia, sono io, tu non mi ricordi? Com’Ç mai?”
I turned to see Mr C smiling so broadly his teeth shone under his moustache.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were a stranger.’
“Of course you did, how could you know otherwise? I should not have frightened you. But what are you doing here?”
“I’m going home.’
“My wife tells me you live near Santo Spirito, you are far away.”
Indeed I was, but I told him the night was warm and I wanted to walk. In truth I did not want to return to my empty apartment and when Mr C invited me to have supper with him I was almost relieved at the promise of company, even that of the man whose wife made love to me every week.
I asked him how my student fared and was told she was of course little changed since the previous afternoon when I had seen her. His ironic tone warned me against further mention and I wondered if he wanted to keep our meeting secret from his wife, surely they had none where I was concerned? I would decide later, but I knew then that I would not have sex with this man ever again, our business in each others’ bodies was finished.
We walked in silence to a nearby restaurant while Mr C lit a cigarette. In the flare of phosphorous his profile looked uncomfortably cruel. He screwed up his eyes against the acrid smoke and I realised he was probably much older than his wife. I recalled the athletic firmness of his body and the determined energy of his prick but when we fucked I had not really seen him.
I had plenty of time to observe him now and as we sat opposite each other, the food and wine between us, I learnt the lines of his face, the eyes that disappeared into delighted creases every time he laughed, the force of his jaw and the deep red lips under his still dark moustache. He was certainly a handsome man but his attraction lay not so much in his features but in his unashamed masculinity. For all his elegant clothes, his impeccable manners at table and his easy after dinner conversation, the man was just that, unadulterated male and as such he was the perfect complement to his wife in whom was apotheosised the female of the species, all curves and roundness and generous flesh, soft hair, soft eyes, and breasts that La Cicciolina would have died for. You were always aware of the magnificent body under her clothes in the way that I knew Mr C’s erection was a permanent fixture.
It was between us now and a part of us, the most basic of responses and yet the most hallowed - like some primal magic, the penis erect between and before all of us, our undoing and our making. It rent the veil of our inhibitions and consumed our social pretences in a bonfire of vanities. There was no disguising its intent. The mystery lay in its genesis, that this marvellous piece of flesh could rise for me and the stapled crease of a centrefold, for the touch of my skin or the shudder of rubber, was I to be flattered or insulted? Before me I saw homo erectus, albeit clad in Gianfranco Ferre, his desire striding the earth in search of woman, not me in particular, but woman.
Walking the streets of Milan that night had I been seeking man, that erect penis, that anonymous column, the naked, unmitigated sex thing? I had had everything else.
By way of an opening into a heavy silence between Mr Cs post prandial cigarette and my distraction I asked him if he had ever been with a prostitute.
“Of course, with many.”
“Then, now, but mostly when I was younger, before I was married.”
“But you still do, now?”
“I told you. Why shouldn’t I now?”
“Because you are married.”
“Really cara, I don’t believe you think that makes any difference, do you? Sex is an appetite, a taste. I am eating in this particular restaurant because tonight I wanted this particular food, tomorrow I will eat elsewhere, I may even eat at home with my wife, that is if she isn’t eating out herself or having an English lesson.”
I think I almost blushed. I apologised for asking so personal and impertinent a question, but Mr C smiled, “No, cara, you know what I am talking about. You think that sex, that what we did, must be so intimate and yet you apologise for asking me a personal question. You understand that you do not know any more about me now than before we fucked. Yes, you know bow my body feels when it is on you, how my prick feels inside you and how I come. You do not know howl think, how I feel, how I love, how I hate. But what you know is enough.”
Yes, I knew what pleasure there is to be had in surfaces, the stunning logic of interlocking forms. Prick in cunt, yin and yang, male and female, first principles, the basics.
“I go to prostitutes because I like anonymous sex, literally sex without names, without personality. I do not want to know the woman, in fact I never have sex with the same woman twice, in that way I practice a sort of monogamy. I do not want to get inside her head, I want to be inside her body. Such sex is the ultimate liberation for me, unfettered by expectation, by significance, the purest of pleasures, the original sin.”
“Is it important to pay for it?”
“Of course. It makes it clean, without misunderstanding.”
“A power thing, you paying the woman, you being the one in control, the one who demands?”
“Again Julia, you know what I mean but you would rather you did not. All sex is power. Ah, you say, of course it is because knowledge is power and what better way to know someone than to fuck her, as if sex were the secret to our souls. The only knowledge we acquire in sex is about ourselves. If it is about control it is again of the self, knowing how far we can go, when to stop, if ever to stop. But I digress. Yes, sex is about power, power play.
“As for being the one who demands - it does not begin with me, but with you. When I fuck you I acknowledge your power to excite my desire and in wanting me to fuck you, you acknowledge your power to fulfil that desire. I am a tool of your sexuality fashioned by your needs, by desire itself.
“In fact cara, I am sure there have been occasions when you didn’t really want a man, had never considered him as a possible lover, but his desire was strong enough for both of you because there is nothing so seductive to a woman as a man hell bent on seducing her. It was not the man who aroused you, it was his lust for you - you saw yourself as he saw you, tasted your power over him and paradoxically succumbed to it, to yourself. In effect you could have sex with any man, as long as he wanted you so very much - you could even enjoy it.”
I disagreed, was I to blame for the effect of my sex on the random phallus, and therefore honour bound to service it? I think not. But the balance of power between seducer and seducee? I remembered Mr P’s unprepossessing form, the drenched knickers that I left between the pages of his textbook and I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.
“But what of the prostitute? Where does she fit in?” Mr C lit another cigarette with his ultra-slim silver lighter and pushed his own chair slightly back from the table to cross his legs with more ease.
“I do find it curious that the prostitute is so pitied and despised. Surely she is an icon of women’s power over men, she can lower her lashes, lift her skirt and we are instantly lost. Our blood drains from our brains and emptied out of every logical thought all we can see is her mouth and our pricks in it, all we can smell is her cunt. If we have any control over her it is financial, but remember, even there if we do not pay we do not get.”
“But you can always get it - you can take it by force if it isn’t given for money.”
“You talk of rape, I talk of sex - of course there is a connection in that the penis is used in both instances, in the one as a weapon, in the other as an instrument of pleasure. But rape is not sex, nothing to do with desire. Rape is about psychological and psychical deformity - it is not about power, it is about weakness, the weakness of a man afraid.”
I thought of the women on the ring road and the night a friend had taken me for a ride. I recalled the cars and their occupants running on testosterone, heard again the verbal abuse these disempowered creatures perpetrated on the whores. I knew my host merely had a perspective not the whole picture, but I preferred his view to mine, besides it suited my purpose to stay ahead. I did not contradict him again.
He continued, “I know you think it sordid but in fact the whole transaction is so very clean - sex between prostitute and client is the only honest sex, it is sex for its own sake. It accepts the nature of desire, defines it. The act is self-contained, an end in itself. In real life sex refuses to recognise its boundaries, demands to be taken seriously, to be significant. If it is good we want it again and habit soon rears its dreary head. If we know that once was enough, either because it could not possibly be bettered and the spell could not be cast again, or because it was so disappointing, we seek to justify the act, we need an excuse. We insist on the guilt if it was nothing more than pleasure, the regret if it was anything less. We believe, wrongly, that sex must be part of something bigger, some plan, some future. I would say forget the future and the past - in sex we can do that, we can lose ourselves just enjoy the moment.”
Yes, again, I did understand. Between the skin of this man and his wife I had known the oblivion of self, but how much of that feeling was due to knowing not only their names but the setting, the safety, the trust that hours in their home and company had induced? Mr C was speaking of sex, not with lovers who made love with affection and memory and words, but with strangers, with nameless bodies. I had never known sex like that and I wanted to but I was not prepared to join the prostitutes in the square or take my chances on the dark backseats of the ring road punters. There must be another way and this man knew it.
“But the moment must end, what then?”
“You kiss it goodbye, and wait for the next one.”
“And while you are waiting for the next anonymous fuck you make habitual love to the named one who loves you, the one who knows your name, and is there no guilt in all this?”
I had moved unbidden from the abstract to the particular, to the personal, and his wife was suddenly so vivid in my mind’s eye that Mr C saw her too.
“I told you, we have an understanding. No, there is no guilt because there is no need for such crass self-indulgence. I do nothing for which I might feel guilt since that is a sure indication it is the wrong thing to do. I take it you are speaking of infidelity. I am faithful in my own way.
In my own way - the hubris of this man was utterly seductive. I let myself succumb to his sophistry, I would deal with my own truths at another time. For now I entered into the thrall of my host, whether he was also to be my pimp or procurer was for me to decide.
“Enough talking, cara. Let us take a walk. We will have champagne at my club, I think you are ready for it.”
The night, even at this late hour, was full of people, many of them pooled under the white light of the wide apart street lamps- people out to eat, to be entertained, to buy drugs or sex or both, or to window shop in the occasional out of the centre emporium. We walked slowly, talking little, Mr C drawing on his sharp cigarette. Then suddenly he flung it in the gutter and took my arm to lead me down a narrow alley to the canal. He was now silent and his pace increased, he almost pulled me along the water’s edge and over a humpback bridge and down another alley to a small dark doorway in an otherwise blank brick wall. He knocked on the door and it was opened immediately by a broad man in an evening suit who greeted Mr C and stood to one side so we could go past him into the long dim corridor.
About half-way down Mr C stopped and knocked on two small doors at shoulder height. They opened inward and a woman’s white face appeared in the bright square.
Mr C’s voice was so low I could not make out what he said but she handed him two masks, one of which he gave to me. It was dull gold and rested on the bridge of my nose to cover me from my cheekbones to my forehead with openings for my eyes so small my long lashes caught on them every time I blinked. Mr C tied its golden ribbons under my hair and donned his own mask which was a far more elaborate affair. It was the same shape as Dune but made of black velvet with gold sequins arranged as a star around each eye hole and a silver crescent moon curving over his left cheek.
I laughed with delight, too excited for the appropriate response which should surely have been one of trepidation and curiosity as to why the drinking of champagne, even in a club that had Mr C as a member, should necessitate the wearing of masks.
“Senza paura, come tu mi fai piacere.”
“Should I be afraid?”
“Vediamo”, said Mr C.
Under the deep shadow of his mask and moustache I knew he was smiling and I followed him down the corridor to a heavy wooden door. I glanced behind me to see that the doorman had disappeared but my question as to his whereabouts was literally drowned out in the torrent of noise and light that poured over me as Mr C opened the door into a vast candlelit room heaving with people. I could have been in a dream of Venice. It was carnival time.
Everyone was masked, the men in the same gold mask as mine, the women in the most fantastical creations - faces of feathers, indigo and turquoise, faces that shimmered like water under the pale silks stretched across butterfly shapes, dark eyes glinting in the wings, and in the midst of all the curls and colours I saw the white half-face and long hooked nose of the sinister Don. There must have been a dozen of these ghoulish creatures in black tricorne and cape, spectres at the feast.
The rest of the revelling men were in black evening suits with white shirts and waistcoats and papillons of dark green silk, the effect was quite gothic and heightened by the shadows of candlelight. The women were wearing very little - loose shifts of chiffon through which the body underneath seemed more naked for the covering, or gowns of lace as fine as Mrs C’s lingerie, or silk tunics in gaudy colours that fell from the shoulder to the floor. Some were completely naked but for their masks, some had bedecked their skin with fabulous jewellery. Others wore nothing but fine gold chains around their necks and waists and ankles, these women had no hair on their cunts. I was disturbed by the sharpness of the shaven mound of Venus, the hidden had always seemed so soft and silky and dark but this was so hard, so severe, no mysterious folds, just a slit - the ultimate nakedness.
Mr C followed my eyes, “If you so wish I will have someone shave you. I am told it renders the woman in a constant state of excitement, almost painful, nothing between your cunt and the world, the elements, the tongue.”
I would certainly think about it but for now I asked the obvious questions - what amazes me in retrospect is that I was merely curious and beyond the changes wrought upon my body by the sudden rush of adrenalin that flushed my cheeks and quickened my heartbeat I was not disturbed in any way by the sights before me. Having fallen into Wonderland, I simply grew curiouser and curiouser.
“You are, my dear Julia, wherever you want, whatever you want and whoever you want. I think I am right in saying you are in fact exactly where you want to be. Here you may have sex with whomever you please but with no names, no consequences and no responsibility - just pleasure, just sex. I want you to enjoy yourself. You are my guest, your wish is my command. I ask only that I may watch, it will be my way of enjoying you and myself. But come, we are out of place, we must change and join the party later.”
He drew me through the hot crowd which turned its black eyes upon me, the voices seemed to still as we moved to the far side of the room and I became aware of music, soft and high, like the notes of a harpsichord. I braved the stares and through the narrow line of vision my mask afforded made out a large, high room with a huge golden chandelier, dripping with what seemed to be hundreds of burning white candles, hanging from the centre of a ceiling frescoed with naked bodies and flowers. The walls were hung in dark green velvet which fell from an elaborate golden cornice to the white marble floor beneath my wondering feet.
A masked male was suddenly at my side with a tray of champagne stems and I took one of the glasses and downed the fizziness with an inelegant speed - the heat was fierce and my throat so dry I could have swallowed a magnum. I replaced the empty glass and reached for another but Mr C stayed my hand, “It is too strong for you cara, enough for now,” and pulled me towards the back of the room where tables were draped in red cloth and festooned with gold leaves.
Upon them stood gold candelabra, plump gold putti clinging to the columns bearing four gold candles - even the flames seemed golden. Around them were gold platters of fruits and sweet things and at each end a golden cooler in which huge bottles of champagne were crushed into the ice. Tall crystal glasses rimmed in gold and full of bubbles were grouped between the platters and as soon as one had been raised by a reveller another was put in its place by a young man, also in evening dress but with a dark red papillon and waistcoat. I assumed this to be the garb of the attendants since another man in the same red was stood in the far corner of the back wall and when we approached he bowed and drew back the velvet hanging to reveal a narrow opening into a dark corridor.
Mr C indicated that I should enter and he followed, drawing the curtain across behind him. The sounds of the party were instantly muffled but I could hear more clearly the antique notes quivering in the candlelight from the golden wall sconces which ran down one side of this tunnel of velvet red. The other side was smooth but for one golden handle.
“Vai cara, open the door.”
I walked ahead and clasped my hot hand around the gold orb. It turned and the wall gave into a small white marble square, lit by a tall golden candlestands in each of the corners. There was a red door framed by marble columns and topped by a marble pediment in the middle of each wall. Mr C bade me go through the door opposite. This opened into a warm dark room full of perfumed mist which rose like an exhalation of flowers from a round pool set into the marble floor.
“This is the last place we will use names and I suggest you do not speak unless spoken to. Alba and Sera will bathe you and dress you and then you can choose your partners for the night, choose the roles you wish them to play, choose the setting. Here there are no limits beyond those your imagination or your fears impose. The only rule is that outside of this room you do not remove your mask. I will tell you what to do until it is time for you to decide.”
He gestured that I should sit in the burnished throne by the side of the pool. I did so and untied my mask which I placed on the marble bench beside me - it reminded me of those in Mr C’s bathroom and I knew at once the inspiration for his own temple of ablutions. Strung out between excitement and trepidation I let the mist enter my lungs and felt its sweetness inside me and on my skin. A door opened in the wall to my left and from the lambent shadows two magical maids came forth.
Alba and Sera were beautiful. In each was the consummate loveliness of light and dark and between them hung all the shades of night and day. Alba was pale skinned with a haze of ash blonde hair, her eyes were almost violet and her cheeks and lips shell pink. Her body was slight but perfect, as smooth and luminous as polished marble and her breasts were small spheres that rose to almost imperceptibly pink points.
Sera had a mane of thick dark hair, heavy dark eyebrows and eyes so black I couldn’t discern the pupils from the irises. Her mouth was as red as a split pomegranate and unlike the demure dawn she was smiling so broadly I could see the sharp white of her perfect teeth. Her skin was the colour of honey and seemed to flow over the plump curves of her breasts and belly and thighs. From the darkness behind me I heard Mr C’s voice, “Draw near Alba, nearer to her, she wants to touch you.”
Indeed I did, but could I? Was she real? Alba was before me, so close I had only to stretch out my arm to know the answer. I touched my fingertips to the silken space between her breasts and ran them down to her belly, down over the smoothness of her young belly, down to the sharp curve of her shaven cunt. I stretched out my other hand and stroked it over her breasts, the nipples were so finely pointed they felt like the edges of paper under my skin.
Jacqueline Lucas writes short stories and poems. She is also a photographer working on a book a photographs of Tilda Swinton, and selecting/reading/judging for the BFI short film competiton and trying to make a baby.
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