No 163 - 2001
La Boite Echangiste
It was getting to the point where Muriel didn’t know what to be in love with anymore. There was not one particular man she could give all her admiration to. Lots of them had the qualities she sought (she seemed to have lots of qualities to seek). But not one of them had all the qualities, and so she found herself loving a few. She was curled up on the bed, as the sky was getting weak and making her pale arm turn blue, and she had her eyes open and all she was looking at was the wall, not sleepily, but alertly, just blinking and looking. All at once the phone began to ring and it had a Pavlovian effect upon her; she sat up promptly and shuffled herself off the bed and trotted, barefoot, over the tiled floor, that smacked her sticky feet.
‘Allo,’ she said, and waited, with the same breath you take as you unwrap your ucky dip.
‘Allo Muriel, c’est Olivier,’ said the voice.
‘Olivier,’ she declared and her feelings went into her voice like moments in a symphony... She crouched upon the floor, holding the phone dearly to her cheek. This one she was always pleased to hear from because this one had the qualities of mental agility and the ability to turn will into action. He had created a magazine that was rich and interesting and had collected artists together from all over the world.
‘Want to go to a sex club with me tonight?’ he asked. She didn’t say anything at first, for a small instant she glanced, it seemed, a little disappointed at something on the floor, something like a corner of the yellow pages, or the pencil under the skirting board that was mummified in furry dust.
‘Do you want to go to the same sex club?’ she asked, falteringly. She sounded a little flat because she knew she would have to take all her clothes off and fuck a lot of people again. Her love would have to go on lots of people she didn’t know. It was already tiring enough to have a few men, but fucking a lot of strangers, some of whom might not be attractive, was rather tiresome.
He said yes, must have said how much he liked the last time, and she nodded, but still faltered. She tried to make her voice sound more positive than it was, and she was smiling artificially as she put down the phone. For a little while she sat, looking at the floor, glumly. Then she examined the watch on her wrist and this made her stand up and run over to the shower room. Ten minutes, it seemed, later, the bell howled, startling every calm vase and mug in the flat. She seemed all aglow and ran to get the entry phone, smiling.
‘Hello Olivier’ she said, putting her finger on the entrance button. Somewhere far down the stairway she felt him coming, his large bearlike form. She went to the mirror and watched the person in it sharply, like the firmest critic. Then, as you would a baby, she gave it a warm smile. Olivier coming had made her feel happy.
Olivier rose up on floor six, and beamed at her. He walked slowly, carefully, like he lived. Always she smiled, looking down a little when she saw him. He came over to her doorway and they kissed on both cheeks, her breathing in his scent, pleasantly rewarded with it. His hair had grown a little, and was not, as she had worried, beginning to thin out. It was very dark brown, unbrushed. His eyes were dark, very shining, but under, it seemed to her, layers and layers of glass. In fact, he wore glasses that almost seemed comical: black, thick framed. He looked like a 1950s French intellectual, only his intellect was clearly fully functioning in the millennium and she gladly fucked him for that alone. His nose was smooth, small, but his lips large, slug fat and red pink. They curtained off a row of small teeth, the front two had a large and noticeable gap between, which seemed the most obvious feature of his face. He was a head larger and twice the weight of her. She looked waif like against him. She was touching the collar of his shirt and complementing it. He smirked amusedly at her rather artificial manner, put on as a joke, and perhaps born to cover up her shyness. His voice was soft and gentle, rather like the murmur of a horse.
‘You look very pretty,’ he said.
‘Oh but don’t you think I should wear the dress?’ And she lead him to her bed and he glanced disinterestedly at the perfunctory garments, pulling out a short cigar and feeling for his matches.
‘No, no, it’s fine. Let’s go. Are you ready?’
She nodded quickly. But the quickness was not out of her own enthusiasm. She had chosen to go to the club just to be with him, and did not want to delay him any further in his desire.
Down in the street they were both so small. She went a little behind him and he walked towards a large and shining black motorbike, the larger model. The buildings towered above them, six or so floors high, and the colour of greyish sand, but like nests, the little metal balconies harboured small oases of coloured flowers, most prolific was the gleaming cochineal of geraniums, screaming for a place in the retina.
He gave her a helmet and in silence she undid her hair and put it on. Gently he did the strap for her, and then he lifted the enormous metal creature off its perch and set it in the middle of the road, setting off a sudden roar of what sounded like sneezing and a whole collection of men with chesty coughs. She climbed onto the back and tried to pull down her tiny mini skirt, which refused to cover the tops of her stockings. As soon as the creature accelerated off she gave up and left the white tops of her thighs gleaming and bright for all to see.
The two rode off, her with her arms wrapped around his waist. Occasionally, when the beast stopped at a red light, he turned and stroked the tops of her thighs, to show affection. Sometimes they would shout over the noise of the engine, exchanging a little news.
The two became another of the many vehicles travelling along the wide, long roadway. It was a warm night, as if the city were perched on the lips of a hot mouth. The stink of sodden earth, crashing with sudden spring greenery, hung on this heat with the weight of a body in a hammock. She let her fingers crawl through the gap in this shirt and find the coating of hair on his belly and the warm, lardish folds of flesh. Responsively he rubbed her knee, and let his fingers trail along the inside of her thigh. The motorbike seemed to shout, without taking breath, in the ceaseless flow of air and it seemed that the apartment buildings on either side of the road stood back for them to pass. They came to the river. Here the sky was open and free. There was hardly a cloud sullying it, and the giggling mirror of the river lay shining beneath the bridge. To the right the old part of town looked warped and cramped together, its grey roofs streaked with white pigeon droppings, as though these were the remains of the streamers from that evening’s party.
The bike turned and followed the river along the left bank. They sped past the ambling souls who explored the night pathways and bridges and past the lovers whose bodies seemed to walk on a land that was not this one... past the tables of cafés lit with the gold of buttercups where circles of people sipped on cooling drinks, composing conversations made up of all the words grown from their daily, intermingling experiences.
He turned the machine and the long wide road of rue de Renne led directly to Montparnasse Tower, which, even at this late, dark coffee hour, was speckled with a chessboard of bright lights. Its heavy volume was vast tall, rendering them insect small, threatening to squash them were it to timber over. His machine purred like a lion as they paused at lights, and she waited contentedly, somehow more comfortable on this journey with him then anything else. Then they arrived at the road, the last and final road. The sound of the motorbike superseded every other noise and faces turned from the café, that sat on the street corner, tranquilly.
He steered the machine skilfully along the pavement, stopped it and she swung off. Then he lifted it on its perch again. Immersed in the shadows at the side of the street she began to notice bodies, sleeping. One had his back to them and had not pulled up his trousers, so that the whole of his bare backside was exposed. It was speckled with large red marks.
‘What are they?’ she asked, under her breath, with the fear of some superstitious mediaeval who thought they were in the face of the Black Death.
‘He’s been scratching,’ was all Olivier said. Before she had time to put up her hair, Oliver had already strode over to the door to ring the bell. She followed him quickly, as if afraid to be left outside alone. They both stood in front of an anonymous black door. It had lamps on either side and the entrance had a little step. It looked like the entrance to a private club, but there was no sign. Then the door opened ajar and the face of a woman looked out. She was painted carefully, her skin more the colour of peach melba icecream and her eyelashes were thick and black as the spears of toy soldiers. After looking at them, the door then opened wide for them and they entered. They came in slowly, giving their eyes time to adapt, for the club was dark. Much of the light was red, much of the walls were curtained with velvet the colour of blood. A short corridor and then the club opened out. There was a dance floor, a medley of round tables, a bar and a small cloakroom in the corner. She followed Olivier to the cloakroom and they undressed themselves of their coats. These were put on coat hangers and they walked over to the bar, she a little behind him, waiting, it seemed for him to do the next move.
He asked her what she wanted to drink. She turned her gaze from the dance floor, where a cluster of couples were pressed closely together, rocking to the music. ‘For Ay.... ay....... ay..... will always love yoooo...’
‘Champagne,’ she said, with an appreciative voice. She could just about see her own reflection in a mirror tile behind the bar. She was wearing her pearl earrings, that wobbled very daintily as she turned her long neck. Her hair was scooped up and clipped upon her head in a velvety, gold mound. Her eyes were large, shining, if a little too childlike for a woman her age.
As soon as she’d been given her drink, she took it to a table, hoping Olivier might follow her there. She sat down, but sat alone. He was leaning upon the bar, talking to the bar maid. She sat and looked around her, sipping at the wine as though the motion might cover up her disappointment in being left alone. Seven great pipes of disco light came down from the ceiling and hit the ground, circling mechanically, over the floor, rushing cheekily over the feet of the dancers, and going, it seemed, too quickly to get caught for the insolence. She watched the men, easily fifty years old, put their large, webbed hands upon the bottoms of the women.
She looked over at the bar, on which Olivier was leaning, and watched with an air of disinterest, as he questioned the bar woman, who had eyes the shape of almonds, that focussed upon Olivier with the superior kind of distance of a cat. She looked a little tossed away, there alone, among all the tables and chairs, and she smiled gratefully the moment he left the bar and came over to her.
‘That’s the daughter of the owner,’ he told her.
She accepted this information with a nod, and glanced back at the woman, who was examining CDs closely and moving calmly and methodically.
‘And that is the owner’ continued Olivier.
He was indicating a large photograph on the wall, that was in a black frame. It was a woman, wearing only black, leather underwear. She held a whip and was staring out almost angrily. Her breasts were clumped up in the bra. Muriel nodded, knowingly, as she watched this picture. Olivier had drained his whiskey dry and was touching the empty glass as though it was all he could think of doing down here. She took hers, which was still half full. She noticed how he was glancing over eagerly at the stairway in the corner. It was only small, the kind you would have in a little country house. She knew it led up to where the sex was.
She asked him a question about his magazine. It was hasty and a little bleatish, a little desperate, it seemed, to delay him so that he would give a little attention to her mind. As he answered he stood up, and then said, ‘Let’s go investigate,’ and held out his hand for her. All the bubbles in the champagne seemed to get stuck in her air pipe, like dried peas, as she poured it down her, to get a hold of his hand. The pair of them crossed the bar and walked up the stairs. She paused on the stairs to look carefully at a Picasso. It was a couple of interlocked nudes, bearing their genitals and looking fierce and tribal. She stared longingly at it, it seemed out of place in a club like this. She would have waited by the painting, but Olivier moved on and she followed him. They rose up into a darkness and the music of downstairs diminished. A new atmosphere lived up there, a voiceless place, that lived in a lightless space. She walked close to Olivier, for even though they were naked, the men looked strong and hungry in their awakened desires. They watched her come in and she, with her dainty earrings, shrank shyly against Olivier’s body.
Ahead of her was a dark passage way, leading a way through a large, darkened room full of beds. Without light, the naked figures looked dim. Some were standing in groups at the foot of the beds, watching what was happening on the beds, in silence. Olivier led her to a group of people who were watching a tangle of different limbs. She could see a pair of buttocks rising and falling, pushing their way towards two splayed legs. A few arms were sprouting from the darkness of the bed and clamping their fingers around a breast, that seemed to lie, like a child’s balloon that was full of water. And a man was kneeling, holding back his head and making noises in his throat, repeatedly. They could see that his penis jutted out like a parrot’s perch and there was a hand rubbing it, to and fro.
Up here the air was warm, slightly scented with a combination of acrid sweat and perfumes for the body. Soon the eyes had adjusted to the darkness and she was beginning to see the various colour tones of the bodies: the pale pinks and the dun browns and the caramel. Thighs lay upon other thighs and mattresses sprouted humanesque octopuses. All the while there were the whimperings of women, sounding like the weeping of widows. There were also the moans and groans of men, to make the place easily pass a a hospital ward full of wounded soldiers.
Olivier put his hand upon the breast of another woman. Muriel watched his fingers roll and press the paste of her flesh and at once the woman’s arms rose and pulled down the zip of Olivier’s flies. Expertly, she plucked from the buttoned cavern a large, slug like form, and stroked the creature, which swelled in size. Olivier began to make moaning noises. This prompted Muriel to do the same and she reached towards the bulging crotch of a nearby male figure. Soon, it seemed, she had disappeared among the four, and become a giant knot of limbs.
After a while of this sensuous feeding, they unknotted themselves and wandered further into the dark den. Oliver climbed up onto one of the beds, where a woman was being undressed. Her breasts had wide-eyed nipples which stiffened, shrewdly. Olivier pushed his fingers into her vagina, poking around the wet cavernous walls. She, in turn, wailed, blindly, holding up her hands, instinctively, reaching for someone to touch. A man knelt before the grasping fingers and directed the hand to his penis. Another man knelt at the side of her head. She turned her face towards him, and licked and sucked, murmuring hungrily.
‘Bitch’ he said.
She groaned and wailed in pleasure, it seemed, at his insult.
‘Lick my dick, bitch’ he whispered, hissingly.
Muriel recoiled and drew back from the couple. It puzzled her that people should speak like that. Meanwhile Olivier had pulled away also and his face had turned, with interest, towards the couple on the next bed. This woman was lying in star shape, legs open, so that the red offal between her legs, graciously offered entrance. Without hesitation, Olivier went over to her, rather impulsively like a dog pursuing, without question, a smell. He was soon inserted, and moving contentedly in and out of her. Muriel went to stand by his side, as he swayed forward and backward. Occasionally she appreciated it when he turned to kiss her on the mouth. While she stood, the dark shadow of a male figure came up behind her and pressed himself against her back. Out of his trousers pushed a stiff truncheon, eager, it seemed, to see and find its way into her. It was acting rather like a submarine periscope, peering into possibilities for its next move. His skin was clammy and, as he rubbed his hand on her behind, she disliked the wet traces he left, as though his fingers had the glue of others, when they had dipped in other holes. Ahead of her a woman was swiftly moving her hand up and down over a tall penis. The moment it erupted white cream, the man tumbled over to his side, sighing. She could feel the hand had crept into her knickers and was acting like a whisk, making as if her clitoris were an omelette. Muriel turned to look at the man, to see if he were handsome enough to put up with the discomfort, and noticed how dismal were his brown eyes, how crumpled was his face, and how his belly was so sack-like it fell over his penis. Suddenly she pulled away from him
‘I’m going for a drink’ she said, to Olivier.
Olivier nodded, and told her he would soon be down to join her. She pulled herself free of the tentacled fingers and shook her head at the men as they tried to stop her from putting on her black dress and pulling up her stockings. She trod her way down the dark stairway and blinked to see the bright dance floor, and an empty club. Everyone, it seemed, was upstairs. She went to the bar, sat on a stool, and ordered a drink.
There was only one other figure at the bar. It was a woman in a red dress. Muriel ignored her. She was hoping that Oliver would come down, that he missed her. Her face lit up when she saw him. He was coming over to the bar, his shirt half undone, all shiny faced.
‘Coke, please,’ he said to the bar girl.
He gulped it back and then looked at Muriel, while wobbling his adam’s apple to control the bubble and not burp.
‘What are you thinking?’ he asked
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘How many thoughts do you have in a minute?’
He took no notice of this question, as though it meant nothing and said, ‘Well I was thinking that I have to get a condom for a bloke upstairs.’
He leaned over the bar and spoke confidentially with the barmaid, who willingly passed him a condom. He snapped it up and grinned happily at Muriel, leaving her at the bar, alone.
‘What am I doing?’ she heard herself say aloud. ‘I’m not here for me. I’m here for him.’
The woman in the red dress turned to look at her. Her eyebrows had risen, a little interestedly.
‘Yes, I know what you mean. I’m not really. I’m here for my bloke, here for him.’
‘Then why are we here?’ Muriel half squealed, a little in self-reproach.
‘Because we love the person we’re here with, we want them to be happy... join in something they want to do,’
‘Yes, but are we happy?’
‘No, I don’t really like being mauled by overweight businessmen...’
‘So why are we here? We’re not victims.’
‘But I don’t want him to come here with someone else,’ said the woman, shaking her head.
‘Let him come with someone else, you deserve someone more suitable for you anyway, someone who likes to do the same things as you,’ Muriel declared. The woman went still and thought about this. Then she began to nod, slowly.
‘You’re right, yes, you’re right.’
They both leaned on the bar and finished their drinks.
‘We could leave, just leave...’
‘Let’s just go, and they might realise what they have lost.’
‘Yes, they might just realise that we are worth more in life than to put up with this.’
Muriel had slipped off her stool. She glanced over at the little dark staircase, just, it seemed, to give him the chance to come down and stop her from leaving. The woman had also risen, like a reflection, and they both walked over to the cloakroom and asked for their coats. They smiled at each other as they put on their coats. Outside they walked in silence, and when they came to huge, yellow ‘M’ for ‘Metro’ Muriel said, ‘I’ve never put my coat on so well before. Doesn’t it make you feel good, to stop yourself doing something you don’t really want to do?’
Down in the tunnel they headed off in opposite directions, but they turned around and waved to each other.
Half an hour later Olivier came downstairs and walked around, searching for Muriel. He went to check in the ladies, and went to look upstairs. Then the woman in the cloakroom pointed at the exit and told him that his partner had left. At that point he found himself next to a woman wearing a black leather dress, who looked up at his face as if he had something she intended getting.
‘Want to take my telephone number and come here again with me?’
Olivier smiled, and nodded quietly. He watched as she scribbled spiderish numbers on a card. She passed it to him, smiling knowingly. He opened his wallet and slipped the card in. At the cloakroom, he dropped a VISA card in a plate. It sounded like the clattering of teeth. Then he put on his coat and went home alone.
Rebecca Vincenzi was born in Bradford. She currenly lives in Paris, teaching art, writing short stories and painting.
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