Ludmilla is wearing a purple dress which leaves most of her back exposed. I trace the letters L...O...V...E... on her back, but she fails to respond. She’s not to be trifled with. Love, I ruminate, has become altogether dispensable. I broach her first meeting with Victor.
You were by yourself?
No, I was with Frank.
Ludmilla finds it difficult to believe that I have never been to Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or North Africa. Then how do you explain your inveterate fascination with Mosques, she asks. I have every confidence in my capability to avoid becoming senselessly embroiled with Ludmilla over such a trifling matter. I don’t deny that Ludmilla has her life cut out for her. Mosques, however, are strictly part of my turf. Ludmilla’s distinctive turf is insidious sex. Invariably she ;discusses the pulse beating tribulations of each horrifying en-counter with her secretary, or one of the young assistants at the Museum. They customarily listen with bated breath while Ludmilla describes her reactions, her indescribable multitudinous responses to the abrupt, crude, lascivious, blunt and obscene proposals made to her in taxis, in subways, on escalators, in grounded elevators, and in a dentist’s chair. One man insisted on tying her hands to the chandelier...
Breakfast takes forever: I point to a stain on her Bonwit Teller dress. Hastily she leaves the table. I can hear the water running in the bathroom as she rinses it with soap and water. Now it is one hour since she’s left the table. I have only myself to blame for pointing out the stain... I cling to the reassuring sound of running water. There’s much I can do to pass the time. For one thing, I plan my day in the city... In ten more days I’ll return to Paris. My worst fears are confirmed when I reach the bathroom door. It is locked from the inside. I rattle the doorknob... I tap on the door... I overcome my timidity and call her name. I think I can hear voices. They are calmly dis-cussing me. They have my measurement, all right. But what are they doing while discussing me. I am to blame for pushing her into this. I should have known that Victor would be lying in wait for her. All those courses in psychology have not prepared me for a locked door. I debate whether to force it open. It might only be jammed... Logic i. and 2. has not helped me achieve a measure of tranquility. I return to the dining room. I nibble at a half-eaten toast. I plan the next day, and the day after the next. Ludmilla couldn’t remove the stain, so she had to wash the dress... and with one thing leading to another, she then washed her hair. With her head submerged under water, she couldn’t hear me... Now she runs past me into the bedroom to change into dry clothes. She is not wearing the dress. She has, instead, wrapped a large towel around herself. I dare not approach the bathroom for fear of what I might discover. She has no time to put on her make-up. She leaves in a hurry. My inability to love has downright unsettled me. I can hardly pursue the most trivial task without being dejected. Love has embraced me to its bosom, pinioned me against the wall, and with an earth shattering and resounding crash, hurtled me skywards against the light grey ceiling of the bedroom. Love has rejected all& my claustrophobic demands.
Victor does not wish to offend me. He remains closeted in the bathroom until his hair has dried. I accept his matter-of-fact explanation that he suffers from a nervous stomach.
I musn’t overreach myself After an absence of four years, I return to New York without any apprehension that I might encounter my former wife. I saw her last week, said Ludmilla, when she and Victor met me at the airport, and then dropped the bombshell that she had offered to redecorate Alicia’s house... It needs a new lease on life, she said maliciously. I content myself with listing the recent changes in my personality. For one thing, I’m no longer suspicious. No longer suspicious. Last night I dreamt of fleshy angels...that rules out Ludmilla. All the same she continues to dominate me and set the pace. I put it down to her singular lack of forbearance. She promptly begins my visit by asking me to prepare break-fast. She also tells me to stop being so complacent. Within four hours of my arrival she is being screwed by Victor in the bathroom, and any complacency I may have had is thoroughly shattered... But all this, considering my short stay in New York, is so much lead under the floorboards.
Ludmilla is exhausted. The exhibition of i8th century costumes is to open in less than a week. Ludmilla says that everything has gone wrong. She requires sympathy... she also demands undivided attention. She asks me to fix her a drink. Resentfully I do as I’m told. She has another stiff drink, and then I ask her about Frank. No shilly-shallying about. I come ;straight to the point. Why did you leave Frank?
Oh, I just walked out on him. I couldn’t take it any longer. He insisted on holding my arm... For hours on end I would only have the use of one arm. Life became so castrating. Finally, I was so fed up that I told him about Barcelona, Alicante, and about our encounter in Paris. I was so tired of his fucking deviations...
But Frank has his fingertip on the pulse beat of time, Ludmilla says bitterly. All his business ventures are boldly executed, and well financed... His consistent bold approach, especially with young women, rules out any indecisiveness. Yes, his entire wardrobe of bold checked suits is an extension of this programed performance. Only when it comes to sex does he begin to falter. I suspect that Frank misses the bold checked suits and the bold checked underwear... He can’t, says Ludmilla wistfully, adjust to his own nudity. He even took Victor’s in his stride. But the instant he loosens his belt buckle, metaphorically speaking, he is in a total funk...
The telephone rings. It is Victor. He tells her not to wait for him. He’s been delayed. Oh, all right, she says despondently. She hangs up, and pensively bites her lower lip.
Victor. Age: thirty-two. Hair: blond Mustache: none... Identifying marks: none that I know... Color of eyes: blue for dispassionate lust. Victor has the perfect build for an eighteenth century courtier... as well as the enlightened dumbness, the dumbfounding unnoticed in bed.
Initially it was rather unnerving, says Ludmilla. With great sobriety, Victor would give me conflicting advice and stare at my lovely breasts. Later I would let him peek down my blouse. He began to grow on me. Yet I had no intention of making him my lover...
I do not wish to explore Victor’s sex life with Ludmilla. As it is, Victor’s unsettling habit of entering the toilet when it is occupied, or the bedroom when Ludmilla and I are in bed, speaks for itself. One feels free to speculate about the origin of his stealthy approach, about the origin of his peculiar accent, and of the massive college ring, of the natty ties, and of his prematurely aged face with his harried near-sighted look of hard determination, and of the short-lived flashes of lust in his speculative blue eyes whenever his gaze settles on Ludmilla’s leg, not the deformed and misshapen one, but the other... or could I be mistaken ?
Ludmilla strides up and down her bedroom in her panties. She’s in a foul mood. The panties have flowers on them. On most occasions she disdains wearing a brassiere. She discovers a rip in one of her stockings and hurls it at the wall. She’s had a trying day. The Fontainebleau costumes borrowed from the Louvre are coming apart at the seams. She shouts: I must get out of this hole.
I come to New York fully prepared for maneuvers. Thus far nothing’s lost. The flesh will always yield to caresses, but the mind remains as obdurate as ever. It will take more than the combined efforts of Ludmilla and Victor to unsettle me. I will not be agitated, Ludmilla’s histrionic efforts to the contrary, by her references to her two weeks stay in my place. Her appeals to my sentiments are too forced to be genuine. I have concluded that she refuses to relinquish the description of my room in Paris because it pleases her to think of our meeting, two years ago, as the first of a number of unsuccessful attempts to break away from Frank. Victor claims that this apartment as well as the Italian sports car she drives belong to a dear friend. I can only think of Frank. Her magnificent leg, the one that is not deformed, continues to exercise its power over me. I will always stand in its shadow. How obsolete the heart has become.
The day after my arrival in New York I speak to her about Frank. At first she will only say that he misused her. I soon make the discovery that Ludmilla does not in the least object to being used... that is to say she welcomes it... however, Ludmilla will not tolerate intellectual misuse. She remains firm on that. She’s also unduly argumentative about it... One does not toy with a woman who possesses one misshapen leg. Use or misuse, I am informed, is to be energetically applied. Ludmilla may even have a certain amount of physical dis-respect in mind... An hour or two can always be set aside for that purpose.
If you like, Victor or you can misuse me after dinner, between a quarter of eight and bedtime... unless I have made other arrangements for that evening. She also volunteers the following: Frank studiously misused her superb talents and distracting figure with its one smashing leg, by largely ignoring them, except on one or two occasions when it suited his purpose.
I have just arrived in New York after four years of living abroad. I do not quite know what to expect. I am given to understand that Ludmilla does not expect any surprises from me. In nine days I shall return to my room in Paris. Fuck surprises. The first day back I shall sleep until noon... I shall forget the inequities that led to my shameful surrender to her demands. Dear Ludmilla has lost none of her former bounce.
START AT THE BEGINNING: Victor drops us in front of the apartment building where she is staying. She lights another cigarette while I struggle with my two valises. I follow her into the building. She steps into the elevator... and presses herself into a comer, breathing deeply... Her mouth is open, and the thin lips are unaccountably shaped into a tiny elongated O. A residue of fear clings to my perspiring palms. I have forgotten how large her mouth is... completely overlooked the size of her mouth as I was planning my visit to New York. So far she has not made one single reference to sex. It must be my imagination... my restless, troubled mind that is plaguing me. I remain alert. I place the large valise on the
elevator floor between my legs... She presses the elevator button, then darts back to her comer where she grips the flat aluminum handrail that is attached to the wall at about the height of her waist. It must be my imagination... all the same I can hear her quite distinctly enunciate the ejaculatory words:fuck, balls, cunt... My vision blurs. My love is so deeply submerged that it will never surface again.
At most my interest in the apartment is only a minimal one. Naturally objects fall into view. I take note of the two built-in closets... the antique escritoire... the Moroccan rugs, as well as the record player that belongs to Alicia. I bought it for her birthday several years ago. Most likely Alicia replaced it with a more expensive one. I remain calm, diffident, entirely unaffected by this sad memory. It is so much more difficult to hide things in a modem apartment... there are fewer recesses, fewer niches, fewer false ceilings. There is a white extension phone in the bedroom. Instead of drapes or blinds there are wood shutters... but they are a far cry from the ones in my room. I change into a fresh shirt in the bathroom. I keep telling myself that I’m off to a good start... it is imperative that I believe this. Much to my annoyance all my shirts are badly wrinkled. One is so easily discomfited by any unto-ward experience.
I leave the bathroom door open... I continue to talk to Ludmilla. She asks me about my work, but from her dis-interested voice I can tell that her mind is on other things. How quickly I have adjusted to her clipped authoritative manner of speaking... and to seeing her undress. She steps out of her dress. Now with both hands behind her back, she searches for the fastener on her brassiere. The effort this takes is visible on her face. From where I stand it appears as if her hands had been pinioned to the wall behind her. This does not strike me as the proper occasion to demonstrate my ebbing affection. She slips into a robe...
I’m so glad you decided to come, she says finally. But don’t for a moment think that we can start exactly where we left off... I’m not at all certain what she means... I don’t ask her to elucidate.
You don’t mind our not being alone, do you? I have the odd and inexplicable sensation of being trapped in this apartment. Now she examines her face in the full length mirror, and shapes her mouth to form the letter O. Victor is in the next room. I can only assume that he has let himself in with his own key.
All evening I master forbearance. I decline to inquire into their true relationship.Why should it matter to me, a kind of stretched out weekend guest, what she and Victor do in the bathroom. It is so simple to jump to an erroneous conclusion. First Victor excuses himself, and leaves the table. Then she goes to the kitchen to fetch the dessert and coffee. Don’t run off and desert me, I say jokingly. The next thing I hear is their boisterous shouts, their unabashed shrill laughter. They do nothing to restrain their mirth... or the sound of running water. It is seeping through from under the bathroom door when I get up to investigate. I keep myself in check and do not bring it to their attention. All things considered... not to overlook the soaked bedroom slippers, as well as the in-explicable presence of the two damp pillows on the toilet seat. I am at an utter loss for an explanation. Is this all being done for my exclusive benefit. I am resolved not to take too dark a view of all this horseplay.
In place of bamboo blinds on the window there are wood shutters. It is not quite the same thing. Still it is a pleasant apartment, conveniently located near the park. Above the striped ochre and blue-green couch hangs the framed antique map of Paris I gave Ludmilla as a farewell present. Upon closer examination I notice a tiny X made with a red pencil marking the street where I had lived at the time Ludmilla and I met. The map affords me no pleasure. I would as soon not see this memento of her stay in my former room. In my mind I return to the book store on the Left Bank where I first came across the book containing the illustrations of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Again, walking barefoot, I cross the immense courtyard.
Now Ludmilla joins me in bed. She is lying on her right side, and her good leg is rubbing up against my knee. The lights are out in the living room. But where is Victor. I seek solace in her damp arms... She rubs her deformed leg, like a cricket, over my sensitive skin...
Don’t worry, she whispers. He can’t hear us.
Why hasn’t he left?
She carefully considers my question: He’s handy to have around.
In what way. I brace myself for the worst.
In every conceivable way.
It is more than two years since I have been caught in the vicelike grip of her misshapen leg. Her soft laughter passes through the stalks of green grass like a fresh breeze on a June night. Cautiously I raise her unblemished and perfect leg, and press it against my chest. She keeps it in that position with the aid of one arm.
Later I return to Victor’s presence in the apartment. She keeps having nightmares, she tells me. Each night she revives her secret terrors. She awakes screaming. It helps if there is someone in the apartment to hold her hand. I keep falling asleep while she speaks... while she describes her nightly at-tempt to postpone the harrowing experience... In her dreams she disguises herself. She comes dressed as a priest, as an air- lane pilot, as an agronomist. I remember little of what she tells me. She mentions the gravel path and the magnificent scenery... she crosses the alps on a sled. Her terror is a well-balanced act of self-destruction. She lascerates the people who surround her in her dreams... she maims and decapitates them in order to buy more time for herself She invents fresh horrors in order not to be surprised by them. I wonder if she lias a deformed leg in her dreams. But how can I possibly ask her this question. She does not like her deformed leg to be touched except at the height of passion, when she instructs me to hold it. I stretch out my hand in supplication. She brushes it aside. I don’t care for your attitude, she says. She also succeeds in keeping me awake for another hour. It is no wonder that I keep thinking of the small book store on the Left Bank. No one disturbs me as I reverently turn the pages of the book with its sumptuous illustrations of the Great Mosque of Kairouan... I walk barefoot over the large flagstones of the courtyard. It is after sunset, but the flagstones still retain the heat from the sun.
In the presence of Ludmilla’s deformity everything recedes in importance. After only three days she has succeeded in distracting me from the color plates, those illustrations that have come to represent my newly acquired grammar. As for that other past, the one where Alicia, with a look of anguish, reigns supreme, the one that does not start or arrive at any configuration remotely resembling the illustrations of the Mosque... it is soon to become completely indecipherable. As a result I shall be a richer man. Since it is clearly no longer a question of repressing the past, now that it has ceased to impose its tyranny upon me, the brain—as insatiable as ever—must be redirected towards enlarged dimensions of satisfaction residing within my newly acquired freedom. After all, the illustrations, as I’m the first to admit to Ludmilla, are only a distraction. They allow me to scrutinize my expectations, my ecstatic joys and my feverish desires in a fresh context.
But obviously, and this is made manifest by Ludmilla’s high strung behavior, my distractions are just so much copper tubing... just so many junked radiator caps in Hoboken. She drums her fingers on my left shoulder blade. I wisely abstain from any mention of my singular pastime. The world has come bearing gifts. It will not forsake me simply because I’m alone and unattached. The scent of roses lingers on long after my lips have left the nape of Alicia’s neck. Four years later, to be precise. There are a good many straws in the wind to indicate that Ludmilla intends to make use of my visit. Other-wise she would never tolerate my delinquent sexual behavior.
Breakfast takes forever: Without being the least bit self-conscious, Ludmilla hurriedly downs, munches, pulverizes eight slices of toast heaped with marmalade. She also drinks three cups of coffee. Admittedly all this is done out in the open. One must concede her a fundamental honesty for not attempting to hide this uncontrollable hunger, nonetheless, the nutritional value of white toast remains debatable. This morning Ludmilla has black rings under her eyes. She is in a hurry and keeps glancing at her wristwatch. I force myself to adjust to her camiverous appetite. Discreetly she lets me know that my offer to help prepare breakfast is most accept-able. A woman of otherwise fastidious taste, she gets carried away at breakfast, pouring the marmalade straight out of the jar. In some respects the breakfast procedure is a most in-efficient one. The toaster is defective. Also it is placed at some distance from the table where we eat. Something about Ludmilla, I do not exactly know what, discourages me from offering her any advice. Unable to supervise the toaster from the table I simply have to be on my toes. It is chiefly a matter of coming to grips with the situation. I can easily breakfast later on. Ludmilla drinks three cups of coffee. Since the percolator makes only two, this entails my having to prepare another pot. Emptying the coffee grounds into the paper bag filled to the brim with yesterday’s garbage is probably the most discouraging part of it all. The burnt toast I discard are not the result of my inattention, but caused by the toaster’s failure to pop up in time... occasionally it pops up too soon, ;which amounts to the same thing, since I then press it down again .
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that our conversation is a cursory one. She evinces an interest in how I live. My mind is on other matters. I keep burning my fingers.
I simply have no aptitude for organization. My timing is all wrong.
Don’t worry, she says not unkindly. You’ll soon get the hang of it.
I am flabby and shifty-eyed. Is it any wonder that hatred frequently holds me in its relentless grip. What am I to make of my rather ill-defined role in this apartment. Ludmilla has stocked up on Medaglia d’Oro and English marmalade. If I’m to stay another ten days, I will see what I can do to add some strawberry jam to the larder.
Now the apartment is empty. No trace of Victor. His name is not listed in the Manhattan directory, or in her address books. I have been letting my brain run rampant. Above all there’s that baffling fear of loose and shifting floorboards.